By LAURA MECKLER – November 20,2012
The Wall Street Journal
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—President Barack Obama used a bilateral meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to criticize this country’s human-rights record, suggesting the leader look to Myanmar, a liberalizing former military dictatorship, for inspiration on reform.
Ahead of the meeting Monday night, White House officials said Mr. Obama never would have met with Mr. Hun Sen or have visited Cambodia were the country not hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings, which the U.S. is attending.
Mr. Obama arrived here directly from Myanmar, where he had celebrated human-rights improvements.
The 60-year-old prime minister, a former commander in the Khmer Rouge, has ruled Cambodia since 1985. He held on to power with his Cambodian People’s Party through violence and intimidation, most notably in the 1997 coup that eliminated his royalist rivals from power. He faces re-election to another five-year term in a 2013 poll against an opposition that is struggling to unify.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report last week that more than 300 people had been killed in politically motivated attacks since 1991, when a United Nations-brokered agreement ended a civil war, but that not a single case had resulted in a credible investigation and conviction. The organization called on Mr. Obama to use his trip to Cambodia to publicly demand reforms and end official impunity.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes later agreed with a characterization of meeting as “tense,” and said that the president spent most of the meeting on human-rights issues.
“He began by expressing that his trip to Burma demonstrated the positive benefits that flow from countries moving down the path of political reform and increasing respect for human rights,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Mr. Obama pointed to a need for fair and free elections in Cambodia and for the release of political prisoners. He highlighted the case of a radio broadcaster sentenced to prison for something said during a program, Mr. Rhodes said. “He said that those types of issues are an impediment to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper bilateral relationship,” he said.
Afterward, President Obama joined other regional leaders for the U.S-Asean summit in a nearby room, where Mr. Hun Sen’s long opening remarks included congratulations to Mr. Obama for winning re-election.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said he was disappointed that the White House didn’t make a more public statement about human-rights abuses, either by Mr. Obama himself or one of his top national security aides.
“Of course we welcome that the president raised human-rights issues with Hun Sen in the bilateral. But the optics here are actually more important,” he said. “The Cambodian people need to hear directly from Obama that the United States is not happy with Hun Sen’s record on human rights.”
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