US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Phnom Penh today for diplomatic and business talks with China and ASEAN’s 10 member states, but rights groups and opposition parties are counting on the state of human rights in Cambodia to be a top priority as well.
Clinton is scheduled to attend three ASEAN meetings at the Peace Palace, including the Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, as part of an eight-country trip that has included Vietnam, Laos and Mongolia.
On the first leg of her journey, America’s most senior diplomat has exhibited a willingness to bring human-rights issues to the fore.
“The heart of our strategy, the piece that brings everything together, is our support for democracy and human rights,” Clinton said in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, on Monday.
“The United States wants to be a strong partner to all those who are dedicated to human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, believes Clinton’s visit to Cambodia needs to include her taking a stand against a deteriorating human rights situation that has included the government evicting people from their homes, imprisoning its critics and violently attacking villagers.
“The Cambodian government is desperate for improved relations with the United States,” Adams said.
“Clinton should tell [Prime Minister] Hun Sen that continuing grave human-rights violation will come at the cost of US support.”
The perception of Clinton as someone who can make a difference to human rights in Cambodia has grown in recent months, at least in the eyes of the 13 Boeung Kak women released on June 27 after being sentenced in May to two and a half years in prison for their role in a land protest.
They believe talks Clinton had with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in Washington on June 12 helped secure their freedom.
“Cutting our punishment to one month and three days came because of pressure from the local and international communities, especially from Hillary Clinton,” Tol Srey Pov, one of the women released said yesterday as about 40 villagers delivered a thank-you letter to the US Embassy.
On Monday, residents of the Borei Keila eviction site delivered a letter to the embassy requesting Clinton’s help.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the two communities had turned to the US Secretary of State because “no one one else had the courage to take action and put pressure on the government”.
“[Clinton] speaks, she demands, she stands up, she delivers, she commands respect for her words, for her actions. Even women in Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila know that.”
Sochua sent an email to the US State Department after the women’s release, thanking Clinton and asking for her staff to arrange “even just a short moment” for the Boeung Kak women to meet her.
She remained hopeful yesterday that this could still happen – the towering Peace Palace overlooks Boeung Kak.
“They assured me they would try their best to fit it in her schedule,” Sochua said.
Otherwise, Tol Srey Pov said, the women would be willing to travel to Siem Reap, where Clinton will speak at the Lower Mekong Initiative Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment meeting.
“We want to say thank you directly to her, but we know she may not have the time,” Srey Pov said.
Sochua expected Clinton to keep pressing the government on committing to a free and fair national election next year, including issuing calls for opposition party leader Sam Rainsy to be allowed to return home, something HRW also urged.
But independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay does not expect Clinton to pressure the government this week.
“I think she will focus on the regional conferences,” he said, adding the release of the women had been positive for the government’s reputation.