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US First Lady Will Address Cambodia’s Rights Issues, White House Says

A Cambodian land-grabbing affected villager, center, holds a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama and his family in front of U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. The group of villagers on Tuesday delivered petition to the embas

First Lady Michelle Obama will not shy away from Cambodia’s human rights record and need for good governance when she visits later this week, White House officials say. The first lady arrives in Cambodia on Friday, to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative.

“She is going to have the opportunity to meet with civil society to reinforce our view of the importance of having an open and inclusive political system to allow civil society to have a role in good governance,” Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said in a media phone call this week.

Cambodia is one of 11 countries participating in part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, run by the Peace Corps and overseen by the first lady.

“Cambodia is a developing country where the Peace Corps is already active on the ground, and community-led solutions can really impact girls’ education,” Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff, said in the press call.

Medeiros said the first lady’s trip, which also includes a stop in Japan, where she arrived Wednesday, fits well with the US strategy of “rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific,” a top foreign policy priority for the president.

“Since the earliest days of the administration in 2009, the United States has sought to expand its economic, political, diplomatic, and military involvement in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

“As part of the strategy, we have adopted numerous policies to expand the US engagement with the region,” he said. “At the same time, we have sought to partner with countries in the region to ensure that not only is the US more present and active in the region, but we’re working with our key partners in the region to build a security environment, an economic environment, a political environment, and a diplomatic environment that serves American interests.

“In other words, it’s not just about the US doing more in Asia,” he said. “It’s about the US working with our partners in Asia to do more in the region and globally.”

Local rights workers welcomed the visit and the chance to discuss Cambodia’s human rights record with the first lady.

“Civil society is the eyes and ears, working closely with the people,” Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, told VOA Khmer. “They clearly understand the people’s difficulties, needs and other issues. Therefore the government should take civil society’s critical ideas into consideration, instead of accusing them of attacking the government. This is wrong.”

Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said he hopes in Obama’s meetings with Cambodian officials that she will raise the plight of 11 housing rights activists currently in detention.

The women were arrested and jailed after protesting over land issues and flooding in the Phnom Penh neighborhood of Beoung Kak, in a move roundly criticized by local and international rights groups as a government attempt to stifle dissent.

“They didn’t do anything against the law, but the arrests make [Cambodia’s] human rights violations even worse,” Am Sam Ath said.

However, government spokesman Phay Siphan warned against interference in Cambodia’s affairs by “any elite who…disrespects Cambodia.” First Lady Obama is a guest of Cambodia, he said, and her visit should focus on culture and education.