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Obama spurs reform hopes

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An American Obama supporter cheers news of his election at Phnom Penh's FCC during last November's presidential election. Photo by: Eleanor Ainge Roy

Barack Obama's impending inauguration has stoked expectations of change in Cambodia, but analysts say familiar aims are likely to head the US agenda.

AS America's first black president-elect prepares to take office in Washington, DC, embassy sources and local analysts say US policy towards Cambodia will remain constant, despite local hopes that it will take on a more activist orientation.

In a January 12 speech, US Charge d'Affairs Piper Campbell said the inauguration of Barack Obama would likely have little effect on US-Cambodia relations, saying that many of the issues that Cambodia faces - such as poverty and the weak rule of law - required stable, long-term solutions.

She said Washington's aims were to see Cambodia become a country that is "domestically stable", where government is "democratic and just", and where "a healthy economy raises more people out of poverty and provides an opportunity for business".

But like the American electorate, many of whom have projected their hopes of political change on Obama, some Cambodians hope the US will help push Cambodia's government in a more accountable direction.

"Cambodian people believe that the United States of America will become a guarantor of security, peace and democratic development throughout the

world," said Sourn Sereyratha of the US-based Cambodian Action Committee for Justice and Equity, in a Saturday letter to the president-elect.

"We urge [you] to take all means to... defend Cambodian people against the extreme human rights abuses by its own leaders."

Sam Rainsy Party Deputy Secretary General Mu Sochua was more sanguine, saying that US-Cambodia relations were unlikely to change radically, but that Obama's foreign policy team, headed by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, would usher in positive changes.

"We don't want to have unrealistic expectations about the Obama team," she said, but added that a hoped-for increase in US aid and foreign investment would contribute to the development of the country's democracy and human rights.

"If Obama understands that change starts with the promotion of human rights, I am confident [he] will realise this properly in Cambodia."

Wayne Weightman of Democrats Abroad Cambodia, the local wing of the Democratic Party, said he could not comment on Obama's likely policy towards Cambodia, but said that the new president's investiture likely would lead to positive changes across the globe.

Cambodia is not on the list of countries for which the US has any special attention.

"We think that the incoming administration's foreign policy will be a significant improvement on [the Bush administration]," he said.

Political constraints

There are limits, however, to how far the new administration will be able pressure Phnom Penh on human rights issues, given that it requires the Royal Government's cooperation on high-profile American initiatives in areas such as counter-terrorism and human trafficking.

China's increasingly prominent investments in the Kingdom may also discourage Washington from taking a harder line on human rights, given Beijing rarely - if ever - attaches human rights clauses to its own aid and loan packages.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said that he looked forward to a fruitful relationship with the new US administration, saying that "the US-Cambodian relationship had been improving a lot, and we hope that the trend will continue for the benefit of both countries".

He added that the government hoped the US administration would "restore its image as a peacemaker and [establish] good relationships with the outside world".

Chea Vannath, an independent analyst, said that Cambodia's stability - in contrast to the upheavals of the past - would continue to promote a cautious US policy towards Cambodia.

"It doesn't matter who is in the White House," said Chea Vannath. "Cambodia is not Zimbabwe. Cambodia is not on the list of countries for which the US has any special attention."

She added that American agencies such as USAID, which were not directly funded through the executive branch, would not come under the personal attention of the new president, whatever his intentions.

"The world has so many troubles, and Cambodia looks quiet and stable from the White House's point of view. I don't see any change," she said.

Obama will be sworn in as president tonight at midnight, Cambodian time.



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