Civil society groups yesterday mostly praised U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to press Prime Minister Hun Sen on election reforms and human rights when the two leaders met privately on the sidelines of the Asean Summit here on Monday. But they said Mr. Obama, who departed Tuesday, missed a “golden opportunity” to publicly address such issues and that the U.S. and donor countries will have to keep up the momentum for any good to come of it.
After Monday’s closed-door meeting, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that Mr. Obama had spent most of it urging the prime minister to move toward free and fair elections, set up an independent electoral commission, let opposition parties do their work and release all political prisoners.
Rupert Abbott, Cambodia researcher for Amnesty International, said he welcomed Mr. Obama’s “strong stand,” but felt other world leaders also gathered in Phnom Penh for the Asean and East Asia summits—major donors Australia and Japan especially—should have joined him.
“We would have liked to see more from them,” Mr. Abbott said.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard focused on regional trade and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Shiwei Ye, regional representative for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, said Mr. Obama should have pressed Cambodia for a show of reform before arriving in Phnom Penh.
“Whereas the Burmese government released dozens of political prisoners when Obama visited [on Monday morning], the U.S. did not secure any concessions from Hun Sen at all,” Mr. Shiwei said.
“Restrictions on freedom of assembly intensified before Obama’s visit and continued even during his visit, so it is business as usual in Cambodia.”
Rights groups also thought that Mr. Obama should have spoken out publicly.
“Obama missed a golden opportunity to take Cambodia to task by keeping his human rights concerns private. This allows the Cambodian government to spin the story to its favor and undermines the U.S. position and leverage. It leaves the Cambodian people wondering whether Obama had heard their SOS,” Mr. Shiwei said.
Government officials have rejected the description of the leaders’ private meeting as “tense.” Instead, they said that Mr. Obama walked away having been disabused of his “misunderstanding” of Cambodia’s human rights record, said Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho.
“Some Khmer language media outlets reported initially that President Obama did not focus on issues like human rights and the elections,” Ms. Pilorge added.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said even public comments from the president could have been distorted, however.
“They can twist whatever they want,” Ms. Sochua said.
Pushing the prime minister too hard in public could even be counterproductive, she added.
A private meeting “gives time for Hun Sen to digest. In the long run it is more effective,” Ms. Sochua said.
Heng Mom, who has been protesting against the government’s attempts to evict her from central Phnom Penh for years and who joined demonstrations calling for Mr. Obama’s help during his visit, said she was confident his brief visit to Cambodia would make a difference.
“We still have hope and trust in him,” said Ms. Mom, who earlier this year spent a month in jail for taking part in a peaceful protest.
“We hope he will help Cambodians who have suffered human rights abuses, forced evictions and illegal detention.”