PHNOM PENH - A significant amount of time during the short meeting between the leaders of Cambodia and the US were spent on human rights, US officials say, but it is unclear whether the Cambodian government will change course in what rights groups say is a “downward spiral.”
In his brief bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday, US President Barack Obama “focused all of his comments on issues associated with human rights,” a White House spokesman said afterward.
“In particular I would say the need for them to move towards elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners, and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Ben Rhodes, US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, told reporters.
The president called Cambodia’s rights record and political situation a “significant restraint” on US cooperation, Rhodes said. Obama “went through a set of areas where we have concerns about the human rights situation within Cambodia,” Rhodes said. “He said that those types of issues are an impediment to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper bilateral relationship.”
With the added attention from the world on the US president’s visit, Cambodia is taking on intense scrutiny over its human rights record.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia section for Human Rights Watch, said it was important that Obama raised the issue with Hun Sen, contrary to what Cambodian officials have tried to portray of the conversation.
“The government and the spokespeople are trying to maintain there was no discussion on human rights and what was discussed about human rights was not a significant part of the meeting,” he said. “Our understanding was that it was the central part of the meeting between President Obama and Hun Sen.”
Of particular concern to many observers is the detention of Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio, a government critic who received a 20-year jail sentence on charges rights groups say are dubious, as is the exile of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is facing 12 years in prison on charges he says are politically motivated.
Robertson said both should be pardoned, Mam Sonando released and Sam Rainsy allowed to return ahead of general elections scheduled for July 2013.
“The issue of Sam Rainsy being able to return goes right to the heart of the legitimacy of the upcoming election next year,” Robertson said.
Obama raised the case of Mam Sonando in his meeting with Hun Sen, Rhodes said. “He highlighted, for instance, one case of a radio broadcaster who’s been sentenced to many years in prison simply for something that they said on the radio,” he said.
In an interview with VOA Khmer, Mam Sonando’s wife, Din Phanara, who visited her husband Tuesday, said he was “very pleased and proud” Obama had raised the issue. “In America, they allow their citizens to express their opinions freely, without any fear,” she told VOA Khmer after her visit. “That’s why the United States cannot ignore the people or activists who protect human rights, who protect freedom of expression.”
Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Sam Rainsy Party, welcomed Obama’s raising of the issue of free and fair elections with Hun Sen. But he said he doubted the government would heed the message.
“Now we face a lot of obstacles because the government leader seems to underestimate the recommendations of the UN, as well as the US,” he said. “If Cambodia does something that contradicts the international movement, or superpower countries, then Cambodia will face impediments, both politically and economically, in the future.”
Robertson said the meeting with Obama will “have a major impact on how the international community sees Cambodia.”
“Increasingly Cambodia has been viewed as a country where the human rights situation is in a downward spiral,” he said. “Cambodia is competing with Burma as perhaps one of the worst human right abusers in Asean. So there is going to be a lot of attention to human rights issues in Cambodia in the coming years, and the US will certainly, I think, continue to play an important role in pointing out these human rights problems in Cambodia and demanding that the Cambodian government responds and fixes those problems.”
Meanwhile, rights groups have a growing concern that Cambodia’s close relationship with China and the aid that comes with it will mean the country does not improve on rights abuses or commit to a free and fair political process and election in 2013. China, whose premier, Wen Jiabao, was in Phnom Penh for this week’s summits, pledged $50 million in aid to Cambodia over the weekend.
Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University, in Phnom Penh, said democratic supporters could be “disappointed, because we see already that China is a giant back bone” for Cambodia.
Still, Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Human Rights Party, said Hun Sen should consider the points raised by Obama. “If he wants to have a good relationship with the US, he should respond with solutions, not with excuses,” he said.