by
 
Brad Adams
November 18, 2012

In his election-night victory speech in Chicago, U.S. President Barack Obama recognized that people in many parts of the world are still struggling for the most basic of rights. "We can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter…" Mr. Obama could have been talking about Cambodia, where this week he will make the first-ever visit by a U.S. president to attend the East Asia Summit.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has a different view. As Arab Spring protests broke out in 2011, leading to the fall of fellow strongmen, some in Cambodia had the temerity to suggest that it was also time for him to go. Hun Sen's response was typically threatening: "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."

During Hun Sen's time in power, many opposition figures have indeed ended up dead. Death squads have targeted opposition figures in election-related violence, while labor leaders and journalists have been assassinated.

Despite the fact that in many cases the killers are known, in not one case has there been a credible investigation and conviction. Worse, many have been promoted. The Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior websites listing senior military and police officials are a veritable Who's Who of human rights abusers.

One person now in a cage is Mam Sonando, the owner of Cambodia's most prominent independent radio station, Beehive Radio. Mr. Sonando has long angered the government by broadcasting Khmer-language news from U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and hosting call-in shows where average Cambodians vent against corruption and abuses.

Facing trumped-up charges publicly endorsed by Hun Sen of participating in a secession movement, Mr. Sonando showed considerable courage and returned from Paris to stand trial. On Oct. 1, a Phnom Penh court sentenced him to 20 years in prison–essentially a life sentence for a 71-year-old.

Hun Sen has long wanted to put opposition leader Sam Rainsy in a cage. Since he started an opposition party in 1995, Mr. Rainsy has survived assassination attempts, constant threats and a variety of criminal charges. He now lives in exile in Paris after being sentenced to a total of 12 years in a trial transparently aimed at preventing him from taking part in next year's national elections.

Like Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Rainsy has always practiced non-violence. Unlike Ms. Suu Kyi, he and Cambodia's opposition have been largely ignored by the world.

Hun Sen has been in power for 27 years, while his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has ruled the country since 1979. He is now one of the world's 10 longest-serving leaders, while the CPP is on the verge of succeeding in returning Cambodia to the one-party state it ran in the 1980s.

The parallels with Mubarak's Egypt, Ben Ali's Tunisia and Gaddafi's Libya are striking. Yet the lessons of the Arab Spring seem not to have been learned when it comes to Cambodia. The U.S. and other governments issue critical statements from time to time, but they have no strategy or policy to ensure pluralism, the protection of opposition politicians and critics, or an end to the violence and impunity that characterize contemporary Cambodia. Hun Sen has run circles around feckless governments, laughing all the way to the bank as donor assistance continues to roll in.

Cambodians have high expectations for Mr. Obama's visit. Villagers facing illegal eviction near Phnom Penh's airport even painted pictures of Obama on the roofs of their corrugated metal homes with the message "SOS." Eight of them were arrested on Thursday.

Cambodians hope Mr. Obama will publicly and clearly demand the pardon of Sam Rainsy and Mam Sonando, the creation of a new and independent national election commission to administer next year's elections, and the dismissal of known human rights abusers in the government, military and police.

Failure to speak out would be a huge missed opportunity that would significantly tarnish Obama's second term even before it starts. Quiet diplomacy will not be enough, as the government will use its near monopoly of the media to say that the President of the United States left town without making any demands on the government. Such a visit, complete with smiling photo-ops, would give Hun Sen and the CPP the international legitimacy they have long sought.

A strong and public stand in favor of rights and democracy could give hope to and even galvanize the Cambodian people. It would send a message to the region that the vaunted U.S. "pivot" on Asia has moral as well as economic and security content. As he did in his first term in China and Egypt, Mr. Obama should speak over the head of an abusive government, making it clear that his election-day remarks were not just hollow words to please a crowd in Chicago.

Mr. Adams is Asia director at Human Rights Watch

 

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