The question isn't whether President Obama will broach human rights in Cambodia. The question is: Why should he? The answer rests with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who hopes to rule until he's 80 or 90 years old, giving him at least another 20 years in power. Effectively, Hun Sen has no opposition, and hasn't for years. His leading rival, Sam Rainsy, lives in self-imposed exile in France. As for other opponents, Hun Sen has pledged to "make them dead." And for demonstrators: "I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage."
Hun Sen ranks among the world's longest-serving leaders, with more than 27 years on the job. During that time, at least 300 Cambodians have been killed in politically motivated attacks, according to a scathing Human Rights Watch report released last week. The document claims that "[k]illings, torture, illegal land confiscation, and other abuses of power are rife around the country." This year brought more blood: environmental activist Chut Wutty, shot and killed while investigating illegal logging; 14-year-old Heng Chantha, shot and killed among villagers protesting eviction from their land; and environmental journalist Hang Serei Odom, found dead in the trunk of his car with ax wounds to his head.
More from Democracy Lab
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
- The 'Cold Peace' Between Moscow and Washington Just Got Colder
- Too Many Stakeholders Spoil the Soup
This is the scene Obama enters as he arrives in Phnom Penh for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits Monday and Tuesday. The U.S. visit stems from a diplomatic and economic "pivot toward Asia," which includes a stop in Burma, an updated defense cooperation agreement with Thailand, and, according to the Washington Post, an uptick in counterterrorism assistance to Cambodia (among other countries).
To the Cambodian people, Obama's stop symbolizes the bright, beaming hope of the world's preeminent democracy.
"All Cambodians are focusing on Obama's visit," says Saing Soenthrith, a reporter and editor at the English-language Cambodia Daily, established in 1993. Cambodians hope Obama pressures Hun Sen on human rights, he says. "Our Cambodian people need Obama's help."
But analysts suspect human rights will take a back seat on this ride. The Obama administration has bigger geopolitical fish to fry. "Overall the stakes are much higher: To keep a U.S. foot in the door with Cambodia in an effort to balance Cambodia's growing relationship with China," says Donald Jameson, a former U.S. embassy officer in Phnom Penh during the 1970s who closely tracks the country. Jameson predicts Obama or someone on staff will craft a "general throwaway line" about human rights, "so that the U.S. can credibly argue that it has discussed this with the Cambodian government."