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Obama's historic visit to Cambodia highlights economic growth and struggles (+video)

Economically Cambodia is turning a corner, but President Obama took a firm line on Cambodia’s human rights abuses and corruption on his visit to Phnom Penh Monday.

By Correspondent / November 20, 2012

President Obama (l.) is greeted by Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen before the ASEAN-US leaders meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday.

Vincent Thian/AP

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

According to officials present, President Obama took a firm line on Cambodia’s human rights abuses and corruption on his visit to Phnom Penh Monday in a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen – the first-ever visit by a US president to the country bombed by the US air force during the Vietnam War.

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Economically Cambodia is turning a corner following decades of fallout from a brutal regime and bloody civil wars. The country’s $13 billion economy grew almost 7 percent during 2010 and 2011 and at 10 percent per year during in the previous half-decade  – mostly on the back of a low-wage garment production boom and Chinese investment, with clothes now making up more than three quarters of the total exports.

However, Obama’s apparent hard line on the government highlights the fact that Cambodia, which is led by a former Khmer Rouge soldier on course to be one of the world longest serving if he wins elections as is expected in 2013, has also been beset by human rights abuse allegations, and corruption. 

“I think it's time to stop thinking of Cambodia as a democracy,” says Joel Brinkley, author of “Cambodia's Curse – The Modern History of a Troubled Land” and a professor at Stanford University.

In recent years, collusion between local politicians and foreign companies – often Chinese – seeking land for factories, hotels, and apartment blocks, is on the rise.

Cambodian human rights group Licadho says that around 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by the land seizures over the past decade, making it a priority issue needing more attention. The World Bank has suspended assistance to Cambodia, pending resolution of some land-grab cases.

“We see hundreds of thousands of families evicted, activists illegally charged and jailed, [and] land ... grabbed,” says Eang Vuthy of Equitable Cambodia, a group that lobbies for land rights, adding that Cambodia's push for economic growth is, in some ways, trampling the rights of poorer citizens.

While Obama met with Hun Sen Monday evening, he is in town for a meeting of Asian leaders including China Premier Wen Jiabao, India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on the last leg of a southeast Asia tour that included Thailand and Myanmar.

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