|Hun Sen, the long-serving prime minister of Cambodia, will play host to a regional summit meeting next week that President Obama is scheduled to attend. A new report recounts decades of human rights abuses in Cambodia. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)|
November 13, 2012
By MARK MCDONALD
International Herald Tribune (Paris, France)
HONG KONG — President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Southeast Asia this week, promoting American commercial interests in Singapore, reinforcing the U.S. military alliance with Thailand and putting the presidential imprimatur on democratic reforms in Myanmar.
But their stop in Cambodia for a regional summit meeting next week will be diplomatically stickier: Photo opportunities with Hun Sen, the authoritarian prime minister of Cambodia, will be hard to avoid.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh said that Mr. Obama and Mr. Hun Sen would hold one-on-one talks during the summit meeting, according to The Cambodia Daily. The public visibility of those talks, however, remains to be seen.
Human Rights Watch, in a report published Tuesday, calls for Mr. Obama to make human rights a forceful centerpiece of his visit to Cambodia, the first ever by a sitting American president. The report says Mr. Hun Sen’s “violent and authoritarian rule over more than two decades has resulted in countless killings and other serious abuses that have gone unpunished.”
The full report, “ ‘Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them’: Two Decades of Impunity in Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” recounts numerous extrajudicial killings of labor leaders, journalists and opposition leaders since 1992.
“The list of political killings over the past 20 years is bone-chilling,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “While there is a public uproar after each case, officials do nothing and there are no consequences for the perpetrators or the government that protects them.”
The full H.R.W. report can be downloaded here. And the group’s summary of the report is here.
As my colleague Peter Baker reported last week, Mrs. Clinton’s trip through the Asia-Pacific region and Mr. Obama’s stops in Southeast Asia are part of “a larger geopolitical chess game by the Obama administration, which has sought to counter rising Chinese assertiveness by engaging its neighbors.”
A leading Cambodian political analyst, Lao Moung Hay, told The Cambodia Daily that Mr. Obama and Mr. Hun Sen would probably focus on security issues in the South China Sea — subtext: China — as well as the reform process in Burma. He said Mr. Obama was not likely to press Mr. Hun Sen on Cambodia’s appalling record on human rights, the wide suppression of political dissent or the forced exile of Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s principal opposition leader.
“This is a new era for Hun Sen,” Lao Moung Hay told Thomas Fuller of the IHT, speaking about the political topography of Cambodia following the death last month of the former king, Norodom Sihanouk. “There is no force to restrain him anymore — there are risks for the country.”
In a recent commentary in The Times, Mr. Rainsy called on Mr. Obama to boycott the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
But the opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua told The Phnom Penh Post, “I’m sure that Obama is quite committed and his language will be very strong” about the government’s alleged abuses.
Mu Sochua said she had pressed for a letter sent recently by five U.S. senators and seven members of Congress to Mr. Obama, urging him to challenge Mr. Hun Sen on an array of human rights issues. The Post called the letter “a damning indictment” of Hun Sen’s regime but also said the message was “thinly sourced.”
Carlyle Thayer, a noted security analyst in the region, told The Post about the lawmakers’ letter:
Be careful what you ask for, because Hun Sen can be tough if he wants to be, and China doesn’t raise those issues, and Cambodia and Hun Sen, they’ve pointed that out repeated times.
Is this a political stunt or do you have a strategy to follow up? Are we going to vote for resolutions in the Senate, are we going to restrict money to the embassy or aid to Cambodia to punish them, to pressure them on human rights? What do you do next?
Land grabs, forced evictions and 99-year leases of state lands to Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese firms have been well-documented by international aid agencies, human rights organizations and Cambodian and Western journalists.
Rendezvous has written about the murder in April of Chut Wutty, a pioneering environmental activist; the government’s suppression of a land dispute that led to the arrest and conviction (on the astonishing charge of secession) of a leading radio journalist, Mam Sonando; and the murder of Hang Serei Oudom, a newspaper reporter investigating illegal logging who was found dead in the trunk of his car at a cashew plantation.
The veteran Times reporter Seth Mydans and the Magnum photographer John Vink have both reported deeply and extensively about forced evictions, especially in Phnom Penh, a campaign against poor landholders so odious that it caused the World Bank to suspend loans to Cambodia. And Amnesty International last year published a harrowing account of five Cambodian women forced off their land.
“Instead of prosecuting officials responsible for killings and other serious abuses, Prime Minister Hun Sen has promoted and rewarded them,” said the new Human Rights Watch report. “The message to Cambodians is that even well-known killers are above the law if they have protection from the country’s political and military leaders. Donor governments, instead of pressing for accountability, have adopted a business-as-usual approach.”
Mr. Hun Sen, 60, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who changed allegiances, has run Cambodia for the better part of three decades, becoming one of the world’s longest-serving autocrats and a member of the “10,000 Club.”
Mr. Adams, a former United Nations lawyer, said Mr. Hun Sen is one of “a group of strongmen who through politically motivated violence, control of the security forces, massive corruption and the tacit support of foreign powers have been able to remain in power for 10,000 days.”
Mr. Adams, in an op-ed piece in May, quoted Mr. Hun Sen’s response to the possibility of an Arab Spring-style rebellion in Cambodia: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead … and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”
What would you say is Mr. Obama’s best diplomatic posture in Cambodia? Should he press Hun Sen hard on human rights abuses and risk pushing Cambodia closer to China? Or should he downplay these issues in an attempt to enlist Cambodia among the countries in the region that might oppose a rising and more aggressive China?