He came, he said nothing, he left. Publicly at least, President Barack Obama, the first US head of state to visit the Kingdom, uttered not a single word to the Cambodian people, although many have noted that he was extremely pressed for time.
Cambodians, from the man on the street to some of its most public figures, yesterday expressed disappointment that they were unable to hear from the leader of the world’s mightiest superpower. Some rued a golden opportunity lost: for Obama to recount in his own words exactly what admonishments he made to Prime Minister Hun Sen about his government’s practices regarding human rights.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, which had private sideline talks on social and political justice issues with the US delegation, said that without a public comment from Obama, accounts of his bilateral meeting with Hun Sen could be easily manipulated in the local press.
“Well, I can tell you I appreciate the fact that Obama did raise many of the human-rights issues that he raised, but I would expect a public comment from the president during this visit; it would add quite a lot of weight to the issues we have been pushing,” Virak said.
Frustration that Obama did not publicly comment on human rights was palpable on the streets, where everyday Cambodians demonstrated a strong engagement with the issues that played out at the summit.
Thol Siha, a 26-year-old motodop who also joined an eviction protest in which “SOS Obama” was painted on the roofs of houses at the airport, said he was bitterly disappointed the US president had not publicly raised issues such as human rights, forced evictions, freedom of expression and injustice in Cambodia.
“I think he knew exactly that the vulnerable communities and the local and international NGOs, as well as the journalists, wanted him to talk about theses issues in the public to push the Cambodian government to improve all the problems as the people are demanding,” he said.
Siha said the newspaper, radio and television accounts of ASEAN that he had followed had predominantly focused on the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN reforms and business.
“I was very curious when I saw Premier Hun Sen did not allow local and international journalists to ask him about the result of the ASEAN summit while he was in the [concluding] press conference... but talked how the powerful leaders of the world would come to pay respect to the body of the [late] King [Father Norodom Sihanouk] and Cambodia.”
Chhorvyda, 18, an English student at Pannasastra University, was also “really disappointed” Obama had not publicly brought up human rights.
“I did not know what the major points of the ASEAN summits are because I have not enough time to listen or watch the TV,” she said. “However, I think Obama should have set aside the time to pay his last respects to the body of the former King Norodom Sihanouk before the cremation day.”
Others lamented that the president had insufficient time to visit historical sites that speak both of the historical glory of the Angkor Empire and the tragedy that befell it, a history in which the US is prominently featured.
In a heartfelt letter to the editor, Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and a US citizen, lamented that the important, mundane technocratic duties to which the president had to attend prevented him from publicly speaking or witnessing the “ageless beauty of Cambodian culture”.
“The President’s visit was buried in the mundane with little pomp or flair. I regret that the President never saw Angkor Wat,” Youk wrote.
“As one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Angkor Wat carries deep meaning for all Cambodians, and in many ways, it is symbolic of Cambodian civilisation today – a civilisation that continues to feel its way out of a troubled past.”
What had to be taken into account when passing judgment on the president’s low profile, others pointed out, was that in many ways, Obama had much bigger fish to fry than issues related to Cambodia.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay put it simply: Obama came here strictly on business and did not want to put Cambodian issues above the other bilateral security and trade concerns he had to negotiate at the talks with powers such as China.
“Actually, at a meeting of this scale, a world scale, if President Obama was to hold a press conference, even a quick one, he would have stolen the show altogether,” Mong Hay said.
“Another thing is he wouldn’t want to be seen as endorsing the prime minister’s rule,” Mong Hay said, adding that Obama would perhaps also be wary of publicly making Hun Sen lose too much face.
A press briefing from the US after the bilateral meeting with Hun Sen, however, would have been appreciated to clearly explain immediately what had transpired, Mong Hay said.
Instead, the world’s media was left with a blow-by-blow account from the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was delivered only in Khmer, leaving frustrated foreign journalists, bereft of a translation, to ask questions that had already been addressed. The next morning local time, the US embassy sent a White House press briefing outlining what had taken place during the bilateral talks.
US embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh stressed that Obama’s timetable was very much limited by the obligations he had at the summit.
“I’d like to emphasise that President Obama had a very tight schedule and is never able to visit every important site in each country he visits. As far as a lack of a public comment, I must direct you to the White House,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday lauded Obama as a great leader who understood a global public from his childhood spent abroad but was simply prevented from engaging further by time limitations.
“He is of mixed blood and he has coloured skin; he is down to earth with the people,” Siphan said.
“I could add, how does he feel that he missed Ankgor Wat? But the most important thing is that he missed the taste of Cambodian-American hamburger in Phnom Penh,” he said, chuckling heartily.
Phay Siphan holds dual US-Cambodian citizenship and once owned a donut shop in California.
To contact the reporters on this story: David Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org