WASHINGTON DC - Regional leaders continued a series of meetings in Phnom Penh Monday, discussing various issues of concern for Southeast and East Asian nations, as the US president arrived for a first-ever visit to Cambodia.
Security was tight, and traffic throughout the capital was blocked off, as leaders from around the world met in summits, sideline meetings and other venues, hosted by Cambodia, this year’s head of Asean.
Local groups continued to voice disappointment at the adoption of an Asean Declaration of Human Rights, even as leaders sought to find some forward movement on the contentious issue of the South China Sea dispute.
Cambodian human rights defenders say the adoption Sunday the human rights declaration has not allayed their fears that rights abuses here will persist. The declaration has been widely criticized for unclear language that leaves much to interpretation and could allow authoritarian regimes to curb rights under the auspices of national security or public order.
“They say every citizen has rights, but also obligations to fulfill,” said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “This obligation has become a condition imposed from the state that you have rights, for instance to hold a demonstration, but you should not use it to affect social order; or the obligation could be to support and safeguard the state particularly related to social order. Therefore, if we go out to a hold a demonstration in the street, we are totally wrong.”
Meanwhile, Cambodia security forces have continued to break up assemblies and demonstrations around the capital held during the meetings. They have also sought to dissuade Cambodia’s from displaying “SOS” signs attached to photographs Obama, who arrived late Monday for a series of meetings culminating in the East Asia Summit.
His is the first visit by a sitting US president to Cambodia, but White House officials have said he would not have visited the country had it not been for the summits Cambodia is hosting, and that it should not be seen as an endorsement for Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Samantha Power, human rights director for Obama’s National Security Council, told reporters in Washington last week she was concerned about Cambodia’s rights record and its upcoming elections, which she said she worried would not be free and fair. Cambodian officials have characterized her remarks as misleading.
Obama met with Hun Sen directly after his arrival Monday.
Obama “highlighted a set of issues that he’s concerned about within Cambodia,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, said after the meeting, Reuters reported. “In particular, I would say the need for them to move toward 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,” he said.
Cambodian officials said afterward that the US had agreed to turn 70 percent of Cambodia’s debt payments toward development assistance in education, demining and other programs. Hun Sen told Obama Cambodia has been defamed by accusations of human rights abuses and that it has no political prisoners in its jails.
Hun Sen also defended the arrest of independent radio operator Mam Sonando, who has been given a 20-year jail sentence on charges rights groups say are dubious. Beehive radio continues to operate, Hun Sen told Obama, according to Cambodian aids. Hun Sen also told Obama that Mam Sonando’s case is for the courts to arbitrate and that those who commit crimes must be “responsible” for them, officials said. He also told Obama that the National Election Committee remains neutral, officials said after the meeting.
Obama is arriving after a trip to Burma, where he met with leaders and with Noble laureate Ang San Suu Kyi, following democratic reforms there. Cambodia has said it helped Burma reform its rights records and democracy, but officials say Cambodia has been given little credit for doing so.
Before departing Tuesday night, the US president is scheduled for a Trans-Pacific Partnership meeting and discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, according to White House officials.
Meanwhile, China pledged more than $50 million in aid on Sunday, and a China-Asean meeting was held Monday.
“This year marks the 15th anniversary of the cooperation between Asean and China, Japan and [the Democratic Republic of Korea], which makes this meeting special in a way that can build on past achievement and the future,” Wen said in remarks Monday. “I’ve come here with a desire for increased mutual trust and enhance to cooperation.”
Asean leaders continued to discuss the South China Sea issue, including with Japan, whose leaders voiced concerns over developments that could lead to future conflict and voiced hopes for code of conduct among Asean states and China, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters Monday.
Japan “also acknowledged that relations between Japan and China are going through a difficult period, but at the same time, and this is the main point, Japan is committed to address this difficult period in a calm manner through the promotion of dialogues and diplomacy.”
Cambodian officials said Sunday that Asean leaders had decided not to “internationalize” resolution over the sea, which contains major international shipping lanes.
On Monday, Philippines President Benigno Aquino said it would retain the right to seek outside intervention in its disputes with China.
“The Philippines… has the inherent right to defend its national interests when deemed necessary,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters, quoting Aquino’s comments, Agence France-Presse reported.