U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on prickly human rights issues during “tense” talks in Phnom Penh on Monday, calling on Southeast Asia’s longest serving leader to release political prisoners and ensure that free and fair elections are held in the country next year.
But Hun Sen vigorously defended his human rights record during the meeting, according to U.S. and Cambodian officials, despite claims by both local and international nongovernmental groups that abuses have grown increasingly common in the country.
Obama arrived in Cambodia from a visit to Burma, where he had met with reformist leaders and praised their efforts to transition the country into a democracy following decades of oppression under the former military junta.
His visit to both nations was the first ever by a U.S. president. He had traveled to the region to attend the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, both of which are being hosted by Cambodia.
A senior Cambodian Cabinet official said Obama particularly raised concerns over prisoners of conscience and rights abuses resulting from land disputes in the country during the meeting with his Cambodian counterpart at the Peace Palace.
“The prime minister replied to the president that in Cambodia there are no political prisoners, only politicians who became prisoners because of breaking the law,” Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon told RFA’s Khmer service.
“The president also spoke about … land disputes. The prime minister replied that the number of land disputes is decreasing because of the government policy of having [university] students measure the land for people [who are in conflict with companies granted economic land concessions].”
He said that Hun Sen planned to give some 200 million hectares (494.2 million acres) of land “to the people” to help alleviate the problem.
White House officials described Obama’s meeting with Hun Sen, which was held shortly after the U.S. president deplaned in Cambodia, as “tense.”
U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that Obama spent most of the meeting discussing 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,” Rhodes said.
“He said that those types of issues are an impediment to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper bilateral relationship.”
Rhodes said the president had specifically focused on the need for measures to ensure that general elections slated for 2013 are contested fairly in a nation where the 60-year-old Hun Sen has held power since 1985 and has said he has no plans to step down until the age of 90.
“In particular, I would say the need for them to move toward elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
Prak Sokhon said that over the past month Cambodia had been the victim of a “campaign of criticism” and “twisted information” aimed at besmirching the country’s rights record and preventing Obama’s visit.
“Samdech told President Obama that Cambodian political rights and freedom of speech are not too bad compared to neighboring countries,” he said, using the prime minister’s honorific title.
He said the prime minister noted that other countries had “dismantled political parties” and “imprisoned their politicians,” but that in Cambodia “we are open for all people to join political parties and they can do whatever they want, within the framework of the law.”
On Sunday, all 10 ASEAN member states—Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and summit host Cambodia—ratified the organization’s first-ever Human Rights Declaration, despite protests from NGOs which had said the charter is not up to international standards and would fail to protect rights in the region.
Hun Sen welcomed recent recommendations from the United Nation’s special envoy Surya Sebedi urging election reforms for Cambodia, but said that his country has its own electoral law which prevents the government from accepting those recommendations.
He also reiterated a request to Obama to forgive most of his country’s more than U.S. $370 million debt to the U.S. In January, the prime minister had said the “dirty debt” was incurred by a government that came to power in a 1970 coup backed by Washington.
Ahead of Obama’s arrival in Phnom Penh, municipal authorities issued orders preventing any demonstrations in the city, according to rights groups.
On Monday, police stopped opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) supporters from gathering in front of the Peace Palace to request Obama’s intervention in releasing independent Beehive Radio Director Mam Sonando, resolving land issues, and allowing the return of Sam Rainsy—leader of the National Rescue Party (NRP).
Mam Sonando was imprisoned after he was recently convicted of masterminding a revolt of villagers over a land dispute. He has rejected the charges.
Sam Rainsy’s NRP is a united opposition coalition aimed at challenging Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in elections next year.
The opposition leader is currently living in self-imposed exile in Paris and could be imprisoned for up to 11 years on his return to Cambodia following convictions for various offenses he says were part of a campaign of persecution by the government.
Also ahead of Obama’s arrival, a group of villagers protesting their eviction from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake district gathered on Sunday evening and held signs reading “SOS” and calling on the president to help them return to their homes.
Police were deployed, sealing up access to the district and rounding up the protesters.
Residents of Phnom Penh expressed gratitude for Obama’s historic trip to their country, saying the visit would help bring international attention to the problems in Cambodian society.
“When I heard that U.S. President Obama was coming to Cambodia, I became happy. Now that this world leader knows Cambodia has many issues, we want him to help us,” said one resident who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“Those issues include land disputes, corruption, a limited freedom of the press, and a lack of independence in the court system,” the man said. “We want him to see for himself whether Cambodia is a true democracy.”
Another resident also expressed his excitement over the president’s visit, adding that he hoped Obama would bring about reconciliation in Cambodian politics.
“I want Sam Rainsy to be able to return to join the election,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry and Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.