Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1589

Obama's visit to South East Asia: Cambodia human rights surfaces - US inroads to Burma

Daya Gamage - Asian Tribune US Bureau Reports
Washington, DC. 16 November (

In his first overseas trip since winning re-election, President Barack Obama is scheduled to leave Washington on Saturday, November 18, for Southeast Asia. The trip will include the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Burma and Cambodia.Cambodian_PM.jpg

Mr. Obama will focus on important economic, security and democracy interests in Southeast Asia at a time the Peoples Republic of China is expanding her economic, military and diplomatic reach in the region and in adjacent South Asia notably in Sri Lanka .

In Bangkok, he will meet with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to underscore bilateral relations and military-to-military ties between the United States and Thailand.

On Monday, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, which has been ruled for decades by a military government.

Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi met with Obama at the White House in September. They are scheduled to meet again at her home in Rangoon.

The United States has eased sanctions against Burma and is encouraging the country's fragile democratization process.

Aung San Suu Kyi told VOA that more reforms depend on support from the military.

“Until the Army comes out clearly and consistently in support for the democratic process, we cannot say it is irreversible," she said.

The Obama administration says it is realistic about progress in Burma.

“There is this gap, as is always the case in circumstances of the early phases of reform, where there is more hope than reality to sustain it,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.


Obama’s final stop on his regional tour is Cambodia, which is hosting the East Asia Summit.

Former CIA China analyst Chris Johnson says tensions over the South China Sea, made worse by pressure earlier this year from Beijing, will dominate the meeting.

“China did not appear to recognize the negative consequence that would have certainly within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but also more broadly,” said Johnson.

Analysts say Obama carries added political clout on this trip because of his recent reelection.

Michael Green of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies told US official media unit VOA that presents an opportunity to further define America's increasing focus on Asia.

“And what do you really think we should be doing about states like Cambodia or Burma on the democratic front? There is a lot more color to be painted in on the [U.S. strategic and economic] pivot [toward Asia] on this trip that has not been there,” said Green.

Obama will leave for a visit to Thailand and then attend the 18-nation East Asia Summit in Cambodia before winding down his four-day regional trip with a visit to once-pariah Burma.

“The three countries that he will visit—in some ways, they’re sort of the three troubled children of the pivot,” said Michael Green, former Asia chief at the White House, referring to the Obama administration’s one-year old “pivot to Asia” strategy seen by analysts as a U.S. bid to clip China’s growing military and economic influence in the region.

Each [of the three countries] has a complicated relationship with the U.S. and with China,” observed Green.

Thailand, despite being the oldest U.S. ally in Asia, has moved closer to China in recent years. The Thai government recently refused to allow the U.S. space agency NASA to use the U-Tapao naval airbase southeast of Bangkok for atmospheric research study.

Thailand was concerned the U.S. may want to use it as a military base for the pivot to Asia. It was also dismayed by apparent U.S. reluctance to shift attention to non-security issues, such as food and energy security and environmental protection, in developing ties with Thailand.

During Obama’s visit, Thailand and the United States will sign a joint statement on military cooperation, Thai newspapers reported.

The Chinese influence in Thailand increased after the 2006 coup “because we [the U.S.] took a position that coups are generally not good,” Mr. Green said, while pointing out that China, on the other hand, saw human rights and freedom as internal issues.

“And the Chinese position was ‘we’re open for business; it doesn’t matter what you’re doing internally,’” he said.

“And that in some ways is one of the unique elements of all three of the countries the president is visiting.”

In Cambodia: Canada-based Global Research interprets - US prepares for yet another display of overt hypocrisy as US President Barack Obama prepares to meet with the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen. Accused mass murderer and formerly a member of the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has since sat in power for well over two-decades. While running under the illusion of “people’s power,” he has since 2008 sold over half of his nation off to foreign investors, right out from under the Cambodian people.

In a 2008 article by the Guardian titled, “Country for Sale,” it was reported that, “almost half of Cambodia has been sold to foreign speculators in the past 18 months – and hundreds of thousands who fled the Khmer Rouge are homeless once more.” The report would go on to state:

Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have, in effect, put the country up for sale. Crucially, they permit investors to form 100% foreign-owned companies in Cambodia that can buy land and real estate outright – or at least on 99-year plus 99-year leases. No other country in the world countenances such a deal. Even in Thailand and Vietnam, where similar land speculation and profiteering are under way, foreigners can be only minority shareholders.

A political commentator said: US funds terrorists to overthrow Syrian government based on “humanitarian concerns,” while US President Obama to lend legitimacy to “dictator-for-life” Hun Sen of Cambodia with upcoming visit.

The London Guardian in a September 2012 article stated: "Clearly the West’s commitment for “human rights,” “democracy,” and “freedom” is a selectively enforced set of values, just as driven by self-serving corporate-financier interests as tacit, or even active support for land grabbing, mass murder, and pillaging across the third-world.

"The taint such hypocrisy brings to the so-called “international community,” leaves permanently disfigured any concept of “international rule-of-law,” and resigns entirely the legitimacy of Western governments and silent global institutions from presuming authority to meddle elsewhere while profitable exceptions are quietly made in nations like Cambodia."

Various civil society groups are urging global leaders who will attend the 21st summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh to raise the agenda of human rights protection with the Cambodian government.

Human Rights Watch has published a report which documents the rise of human rights violations during the term of the incumbent prime minister, who has been in power for the past 27 years.

The group reminds donor governments, including the United States, to pursue discussion about human rights with Cambodian leaders:

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. The list of political killings over the past 20 years is bone-chilling. 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.

Earlier this year, local human rights groups signed a statement condemning the ‘culture of impunity and violence’ in the country.

In Burma, American and other Western sanctions on the country’s previous ruling military junta had enabled China to become its biggest ally, investing in infrastructure, hydropower dams and oil-and-gas pipelines to help feed southern China’s growing energy needs.

But Burmese President Thein Sein signaled he may be moving away from China’s grip when he made a bold decision last year to suspend a major dam project that was to provide hydroelectricity to China after mass opposition from local residents and environmental groups.

And as U.S. lifted nearly all key sanctions on Burma in support of democratic and other reforms, Chinese officials and media became worried of possible American designs to dilute China’s influence.

Thein Sein however stopped over in China before flying to the U.S. for a landmark visit in September to assure Chinese leaders that Burma “pays great attention to developing relations with China, and its policy of seeing China as a true friend has not changed.”

Chinese leaders are also unfazed by the American push to beef up ties with the new Burmese leadership.

“We believe that Myanmar’s [Burma's] leaders will exercise their wisdom to lead their country’s opening up. They know that the people of China will always be true friends of Myanmar’s,” Qin Guangrong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party chief of Yunnan province, which borders Burma and has extensive business ties with it, told reporters last week.

Human rights groups meanwhile claim that Burmese military-linked companies with Chinese connections are continuing to grab land in the rural areas.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong based regional rights watchdog, said it has documented many such cases of land expropriation in Burma over recent years and “is very concerned that the country at present is in danger of a land-grabbing epidemic.”

Obama is scheduled to meet with Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to Rangoon after his trip to Cambodia to attend the East Asia Summit.

As the United States is expanding its push in South East Asia, and of course in South Asia, to combat the Chinese expansionism in the region, the United States president Barack Obama's tour in the region will bring some long term dividends to his nation. The U.S. has long ignored this region and allowed China to expand her military, economic and diplomatic reach while maintaining close ties with India and Vietnam.

The United States Foreign relations Committee headed by Senator John Kerry, who is tipped to be the next defense secretary in the Obama administration, in his December 2009 report cautioned the US State Department not to 'drop' Sri Lanka remarking the Chinese inroads into Sri Lankan affairs.

The Obama administration even at this late stage has now given complete focus on the Asian Region, mainly South East Asia, and moving toward strategically located South Asian Region in the Asia-Pacific.

Let's repeat this: “The three countries that he will visit—in some ways, they’re sort of the three troubled children of the pivot,” said Michael Green, former Asia chief at the White House, referring to the Obama administration’s one-year old “pivot to Asia” strategy seen by analysts as a U.S. bid to clip China’s growing military and economic influence in the region.

Each [of the three countries] has a complicated relationship with the U.S. and with China,” observed Green.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this