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As Obama Sworn In, Hopes in Cambodia for Renewed Rights and Democracy

U.S. President Barack Obama is sworn in by Supreme Court Chief of Justice John Roberts, as first lady Michelle Obama looks on during inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.E., January 21, 2013.

WASHINGTON DC - US President Barack Obama was ceremonial sworn in as president on Monday, capping his election victory in November with a speech seeking to move America forward.

In Cambodia, opposition politicians and advocates for rights and democracy said they hope Obama’s next administration will help Cambodia address its own challenges in the years to come.

Obama’s administration has renewed its diplomatic focus on Asia, and at a brief meeting at an Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November, Obama told Prime Minister Hun Sen that Cambodia must improve its rights and democracy record if it wants a stronger partnership with the US.

Ahead of Obama’s swearing-in on Monday, Cambodian opposition leaders said they hoped those words would stick with the Cambodian premier.

“Human rights and free and fair elections are the main wishes of Cambodian people,” said Kem Sokha, head of the opposition Human Rights Party. “For 30 years, the government of the Cambodian People’s party has never assured the respect for human rights and free and fair elections with international standards.”

If Hun Sen fails to heed the US calls for more rights, Obama “has to put on more pressure, as a superpower,” he said.

Cambodia has suffered a number of setbacks on its rights record in the past year, including the April killing of environmental activist Chhut Wutty and the July imprisonment of Beehive Radio Mam Sonando. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy remains in exile, and a number of activists and other government critics are in jail or facing other threats.

Cheam Yiep, a ruling party lawmaker, said the CPP has gradually improved human rights in Cambodia. And Hun Sen is determined to “try to continuously strengthen” rights and democracy, he said.

Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an umbrella group, said he hopes Obama’s second term in office will mean reforms in Cambodian society, economy and rights and democracy. Free and fair elections in July should be especially important, he said.