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First Lady Obama’s Visit a Chance for Improved Relations, Analysts Say

Michelle Obama waved hands upon her arrival at Siem Reap International Airport. (Photo: Neou Vannarin for VOA)
Michelle Obama waved hands upon her arrival at Siem Reap International Airport. (Photo: Neou Vannarin for VOA)

First Lady Michelle Obama is in Cambodia to promote her international “Let Girls Learn” initiative. But her coming to the country also means a chance for boosted relations with the US, analysts say.

“I think this is a win-win situation for both countries,” said Shihoko Goto, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia program. Not only will it demonstrate to the first lady the challenges Cambodia faces, Goto said, but it will also show Cambodia possibilities for serious reform.

Obama arrived Friday after a trip to Japan. She is meeting local Cambodian leaders and community members to learn more how girls’ education in the country can be improved. But her visit comes at a time when Cambodia’s human rights record is under intense scrutiny—following deadly crackdowns on anti-government protesters last year and the jailing of activists in recent months.

John Ciorciari, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, said Obama’s trip can help the relationship between the two countries, but Cambodia’s rights record remains a problem.

“The Obama administration faces the challenge of staying constructively engaged in Cambodia without caving—or being seen to cave—on issues related to democracy and human rights,” he said.

“The first lady’s trip is a way to show continued high-level US interest, to engage in Cambodia, while emphasizing civil society channels for promoting development and reform,” he said. “It is much less controversial than a presidential visit, which would be widely criticized as a political windfall for the Hun Sen government, but still provides a sense of reassurance about the people-to-people relationship and the US commitment to stay involved on the ground.”

The first lady’s visit comes as the Obama administration makes a diplomatic pivot to Asia, seeking stronger ties across the region, as China’s global influence grows.

Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and author of a book on Cambodia, says Cambodia will never have as good a relationship with the US as it enjoys with China, a major provider of aid and investment.

“I think that Cambodia’s most important patron is China,” he said. “They don’t really care very much what the US thinks anymore, because the Chinese write the checks.”

Obama’s visit will be “an enjoyable spectacle,” he said, “but beyond that will people stop getting their land taken? Will political opposition stop being harassed? Will the human rights situation improve as a result? No, no and no.”