A last-minute call for help in Cambodia led to the arrest of eight disenfranchised citizens on Thursday, but it’s not too late for U.S. President Barack Obama to lend a hand where it’s needed most.
Obama is scheduled to land in this poverty-stricken Southeast Asian nation Monday; it will be the first time ever that an American head of state has visited Cambodia.
In preparation, the Cambodian government decided to clear the land surrounding the airport in Phnom Penh, the capital city. Standing in their way was a community of about 400 people, whose ramshackle homes were suddenly deemed too close to the airport runway.
About 180 people were told to evacuate. Villagers had been warned of an evacuation as early as July, but many complained that they were not fairly compensated.
Some took matters into their own hands, adorning their homes with signs they thought might catch Obama’s attention as he flew in to the capital city. A giant "SOS" symbol was spray-painted on some houses, and photographs of Obama were plastered on rooftops.
Phnom Penh refused to tolerate this creative outburst. On Thursday morning, authorities swooped in to arrest the suspected offenders.
This episode would come as no surprise to many in Cambodia; by now, human rights abuses are expected. Ruthless evictions, during which land is seized, houses are burned and whole families are forcefully and sometimes violently relocated, are all too common.
"We are being forcibly evicted from our land without proper compensation," said villager Sim Sokunthea, 23, to the Associated Press. "We didn't mean any harm. We just wanted Obama to help us."
Obama will be in Cambodia to attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, in Phnom Penh, where the regional conflict over navigational rights in the South China Sea is expected to top the agenda.
But human rights issues will also be up for discussion. At last year’s summit in Indonesia, Obama commented on human rights abuses in Myanmar and warned the government that ongoing offenses would lead to more sanctions and diplomatic isolation. This year, many Cambodians hope he will send the same message to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The ease with which the government enforces evictions in Cambodia is a legacy of the disastrous reign of Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge regime ruled over Cambodia during the late 1970s. His disastrous policies -- agrarian socialism and the abolition of private property -- disenfranchised the population so that, still today, many citizens of this poverty-stricken country do not own the land they live on.
Today, the government -- nominally a constitutional monarchy -- is led by Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985. This shadowy strongman was installed in the Phnom Penh government by the Vietnamese invaders who overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and his strong hold on power has stifled Cambodia’s development.
In a report released Tuesday in anticipation of Obama’s visit, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. president to get tough on Cambodia’s longtime leader.
“Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s violent and authoritarian rule over more than two decades has resulted in countless killings and other serious abuses that have gone unpunished,” said HRW in a press release.
“Obama should use his November trip to Cambodia ... to publicly demand systematic reforms and an end to impunity for abusive officials.”
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s leading opposition figure, exiled himself for fear of persecution in 2005. He has urged Obama to avoid meeting with the prime minister at all.
“If Hun Sen won’t engage with the international community and the Asean summit isn’t moved, President Obama, the leader of the world’s standard-bearer of democracy, should take Hun Sen at his word and stay away,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times.
Obama is scheduled to speak with Hun Sen, but those talks will take place behind closed doors. The U.S. president may take the opportunity to discuss Cambodia’s humanitarian crises with his counterpart, but he may also feel constrained by his goal of forming alliances in Southeast Asia in order to check the strength of China’s hegemony in the region
Obama’s visit to this suffering country will be a test of whether this administration’s “pivot” to Asia will see humanitarian issues will take a back seat to geopolitical concerns.