Obama's historic visit to Cambodia highlights economic growth and struggles

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.

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

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.

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.

Observers see the US “Asia Pivot” and American attempts to boost its presence in the region as China rises, as key to understanding Obama's historic visit to Myanmar, a close ally of China.

Like Myanmar, Cambodia has close economic and political ties with China, with the US falling behind. Chinese businesses have invested more than $8 billion in Cambodia since 2006, eight times US investment.

Much of the investment has gone into infrastructure such as roads, needed in a country that was devastated by a 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover and civil war up until the 1990s.

While the Chinese largesse – along with international aid that makes up a huge chunk of the country's budget – has boosted the economy and infrastructure, there has been a downside, as seen in the land grabs and related rights abuse allegations.

With an eye on elections slated for 2013, Hun Sen’s government suspended granting any new land concessions in May.

But no matter how hard the opposition campaigns on human rights issues, most expect the current leader will remain in power because of de facto rigging of the political system. 

Main opposition leader Sam Rainsy lives in exile in Paris and is banned from taking part in the upcoming vote.

Across the countryside and in towns and cities, Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party billboards are ubiquitous, a reflection of the realities of political power in a formally-democratic country, albeit one where the CPP holds 90 out of 123 parliament seats. 

“Opposition candidates do not win elections because the CPP ‘fixes’ the elections before they take place – limiting TV and radio air-time for opposition candidates, handing gifts to voters as well as intimidating some of them,” says Mr. Brinkley, adding: “That way, on election day the vote seems free and fair because the ground has already been laid for a CPP victory.”

It looks like, therefore, the US will be dealing with Hun Sen for a long time, with much speculation that a tough American line on human rights could drive the Cambodian leader deeper into China's embrace.

An account of the bilateral meeting between Obama and Hun Sen on Monday evening described it as “tense,” in the words of Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.

Speaking in Khmer, Cambodian Prak Sokhon, Secretary of State of the Council of Ministers told media at the Phnom Penh summit on Monday evening that Hun Sen told President Obama that accusations of human rights abuses in Cambodia are exaggerated, though acknowledged  that there were some problems in the area.

However, Cambodians hit by land grabs and forced from their homes just want Obama to continue to be firm with Hun Sen on human rights issues, regardless of the potential impact on US-Cambodia relations and for US regional strategy.

“Affected people across the country hope that the President Obama can raise these issues with our government,” says Eang Vuthy.

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