US first lady Michelle Obama will not shy away from political or human rights issues during her trip to Cambodia this week to promote education for girls, the White House said Monday.
The message came as the children and supporters of 19 imprisoned land rights activists from various Phnom Penh communities including Boeung Kak lake called on Obama to use her profile to help secure their release.
About 100 activists, including 60 children, wearing “free the activists” headbands, clutching US flags and holding smiling portraits of the Obama family, gathered outside the US Embassy yesterday to hand over a petition asking for her to take up their cause.
Shouting in tandem, the children called out: “Please, Michelle Obama. Help our mothers.”
US President Barack Obama raised the Kingdom’s patchy rights record behind closed doors with Prime Minister Hun Sen during his historic visit to Cambodia for an ASEAN summit in 2012 but did not deliver public remarks.
However, the first lady, who arrives in Siem Reap on Friday, will be giving a speech that will “highlight basic values and principles important to the United States”, a senior official told reporters in a conference call on Monday.
“She is going to have the opportunity to meet with civil society to reinforce our view of the importance of having an open and inclusive political system to allow civil society to have a role in good governance,” Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, said during the conference call.
Michelle Obama will arrive just as two election-related laws, one of which has been lambasted by NGOs for its restrictive provisions on civil society at election time, are expected to be passed by the National Assembly.
Cambodia is one of the first 11 countries in which the Let Girls Learn initiative, a US government push to get adolescent girls into school worldwide, is being implemented.
Medeiros sad there would be “ample opportunity” for Obama to “share perspectives about education and good governance” during her three-day visit, which will follow a trip to Japan, a Let Girls Learn partner.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government believed Obama had the right to speak about any issues she liked during her stay but hoped “she would respect our sovereignty”.
Given that the US first lady will be emphasising the role of civil society in the political system, Siphan sought to clarify the government’s position on NGOs.
“We all welcome the input from the NGOs, but we don’t welcome NGOs [that are] allied to political parties or take the grants of international organisations to set up what we call a colour revolution,” he said.
Siphan cited the example of the International Republican Institute, a US government-funded organisation that promotes democracy. The group provided funds to help now-opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha set up the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in 2002 – he would found the Human Rights Party in 2007 – which Siphan characterised as “a joke”.
Obama will be the first sitting US first lady to visit Cambodia. Both Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Hillary Clinton have visited, but only after leaving the White House.
Cambodia’s own first lady, Bun Rany, will “warmly welcome” Obama to the country on Friday and the pair will jointly meet a group of female school students in Siem Reap, the Foreign Ministry has announced.
Obama will deliver a speech to American Peace Corp volunteers and host a roundtable discussion with those volunteers, community leaders and civil society groups during her trip, the White House said. She will also visit Angkor Wat.
CCHR president Chak Sopheap, said yesterday that it was “encouraging to hear” that Obama would not be avoiding human rights and political issues during her visit.
“It is very important that the US emphasises the centrality of fundamental freedoms and democratic principles in its efforts to strengthen diplomatic relations between the two countries,” she said.
Sopheap added that the challenges faced by female human rights defenders and activists should be “high on her agenda”.
In response to Siphan’s comments about her organisation, the CCHR president said that “civil society organisations that take principled positions are open to criticism from all sides of the political spectrum”.
The Washington Post last March praised Michelle Obama’s ability to draw attention to sensitive issues during trips to foreign countries without offending her hosts, following a highly publicised trip to China.