Making history twice within hours, Barack Obama yesterday became the first American president to set foot in Cambodia, a country once known for the Khmer Rouge “killing fields”.
Only a short while before, he had left behind flag-waving crowds on the first visit by a US head of state to Burma.
Unlike the visit to Burma, where Mr Obama seemed to revel in that nation’s steps towards openness, the White House made clear the president was only in Cambodia to attend an East Asia summit and said the visit should not be seen as an endorsement of prime minister Hun Sen and his government.
Mr Obama’s arrival in Cambodia lacked the euphoria of his greeting in Burma, where tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Rangoon to cheer the first American president to visit a country that until recently had long been isolated from the West. “You gave us hope,” Mr Obama declared in a speech in Burma’s largest city.
In contrast, in Phnom Penh, only small clusters of Cambodians gathered in the streets to watch his motorcade pass by.
From the airport, Mr Obama headed straight to the Peace Palace for a meeting with Hun Sen that later was described by US officials as a tense encounter dominated by the president voicing concerns about Cambodia’s human rights record. Mr Obama specifically raised the lack of free and fair elections, the detention of political prisoners and land seizures, officials said.
US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Mr Obama told the prime minister those issues are “an impediment” to a deeper relationship between the US and Cambodia. Hun Sen defended his country’s record, saying unique circumstances motivate its policies and practices.
He also reiterated a request for Mr Obama to forgive most of the country’s debt of more than $370 million to the US. Cambodia last year offered to repay 30 per cent of the debt, calling this a compromise over money it says was used by a pro-American government in the 1970s to repress its own people.
In a report last week, Human Rights Watch said more than 300 people had been killed in politically motivated attacks since an agreement in 1991 that ended a civil war, but not one person had been convicted. It pointed the finger at Cambodian security forces and called on Mr Obama to demand an end to impunity for abusive officials.
Hun Sen’s government has also been criticised for ignoring the land rights of hundreds of thousands of poor Cambodians by leasing huge land concessions to well-connected companies that have then evicted residents.
Earlier, in Burma, Mr Obama addressed a national audience from the University of Rangoon, offering a “hand of friendship” and a lasting American commitment if the new civilian government could nurture democracy.
Mr Obama celebrated the history of what he was witnessing in Burma – a nation shedding years of military rule, and a relationship between two nations changing fast.
“This remarkable journey has just begun,” he said.
In a notable detour from US policy, the president referred to the nation as Myanmar in his talks with president Thein Sein. That is the name preferred by the former military regime and the new government, rather than Burma, the old name favoured by democracy advocates.
Mr Rhodes said afterward that Mr Obama’s use of “Myanmar” was “a diplomatic courtesy” that does not change the US position that the country is still Burma.
Mr Obama also visited the lakeside home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – where she spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest. He hugged her and lauded her as a personal inspiration.