The momentum comes from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit in July, when she gave a buoyant speech outlining a vision of economic progress bolstered by workers' rights. Child labor, forced labor, and discrimination has to end, Clinton asserted. The right to join a union or collectively bargain is a universal right -- one that, properly exercised, also promotes economic growth, she argued. Standing up for the right to organize is "both right and moral, but it is also smart and strategic." Workers who are paid more buy more goods. And that makes the economy grow.
"For the secretary of state to talk about trade union rights and collective bargaining on that level of specificity was amazing," Welsh says. It showed that geopolitical discussion of business, trade and markets "doesn't have to happen in a vacuum that excludes human rights and proper labor law." Obama could follow suit, emphasizing economy and rights. "You can have both, and I hope he takes a strong line on both."
After all, the United States and Cambodia share market interests. "The largest investors in the country in the garment industry remain American companies like Gap and Levi's and Walmart." American buyers still hold sway, Welsh says, "despite the massive Chinese investment here."
Chinese influence won't end, and Cambodians know that. Chinese traders roamed the region well before the 13th century diplomat Chou Ta-Kuan wrote of his journey from Peking to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. The Chinese presence endures. That, Cambodians expect.
But from the United States they want something different: a strong force to defend democracy and condemn the violation of human rights. Obama's visit gives Cambodians new hope, which people need, says Saing Soenthrith of The Cambodia Daily. If Obama does not press human rights issues, he says, Cambodians will live "under darkness of Hun Sen's power."