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US Secretary of State To Arrive For Official Visit Next Week

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists about his negotiations with Iran upon his arrival from Vienna at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Jan. 17, 2016.

US Secretary of State John Kerry will make a two-day visit to Cambodia next week, meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior officials.

The State Department said in a statement Kerry will discuss a US-Asean meeting in California next month, as well as bilateral cooperation and economics. The high-profile visit follows trips by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2015 and President Barack Obama in 2012.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters Tuesday the meetings will improve relations between the two countries.

However, members of civil society say they hope Kerry will raise concerns about human rights, freedom of expression, and non-violent elections when he meets Cambodia’s leaders.

“Cambodian rights are restricted, and some protesters are detained,” said Thun Saray, head of the rights group Adhoc. “This is an important issue, which I want the Secretary of State to discuss carefully with Cambodia’s senior leaders.”

Thun Saray said he hoped Kerry could help with the release of the detainees and with peaceful elections in 2017 and 2018.

“My concern of the atmosphere for the upcoming elections is that political tension will lead to restrictions on the freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but it should be free and without fear,” he said. “And political prisoners should be released because their detention leads to fear and unfairness during the upcoming elections.”

Thida Khus, executive director for the women’s development organization Silaka, said she hopes Kerry will discuss better law enforcement with leaders, as well as more investment from the US and more opportunities for Cambodian women.

“If he’s coming for commercial purposes, I want him to raise important points to help women, especially in urging for the endorsement of policies that provide greater opportunities for women, including their participation at the leadership level in Cambodia’s public sector,” she said.

Civil society leaders are drafting a joint statement to issue for Kerry’s visit, Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said.

“We will raise some points of concern on human rights, such as the restriction of the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, etc.,” she said. “The core issue of concern is the threat of activists.”

That includes next week’s trial of union leader Vorn Pov, who is accused of inciting violence during demonstrations in 2014. Chak Sopheap also said she is concerned about a new law to regulate NGOs, one to regulate trade unions, and one to regulate the Internet, all of which have repercussions for Cambodia’s democracy.