On some levels, Cambodians have sought and welcomed saviors from the horrors of their recent history, but they've often been let down. In 1979, the Vietnamese ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge -- and then implemented a repressive decade-long occupation. Khmers still debate whether to call that time liberation or invasion. In 1993, the United Nations brought the country's first-ever democratic elections -- widely seen as flawed. In 1998, amid weeks of violent post-election protests, Cambodians erected a camp called "Democracy Square," with demonstration signs written in English. Protesters told foreign journalists they wanted the United States to set the people free. That didn't happen.
Today, Cambodians look to Barack Obama, president of the world's most powerful democracy, which espouses the very ideals many Cambodian people seek. The president's preceding visit to Burma will show a country progressing in human rights "and Cambodia should do the same," says Hing Channarith, CEO of the Cambodian Children's Advocacy Foundation, an NGO that aids impoverished rural Cambodians. It's a telling statement, considering Burma is just opening up while Cambodia's democracy dates back 20 years.
For Cambodians, the real test of Obama's visit will come next summer, when Hun Sen is, once again, up for reelection. Those polls must be free; Sam Rainsy must have his run, Channarith says. The world must watch and take account.
If not, Channarith says, "then Mr. Obama's visit is nothing."