US President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at the 4th ASEAN-US Leaders’ Meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh Monday, Nov.19, 2012. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/Phnom Penh Post
As US President Barack Obama began the first public remarks ever made on Cambodian soil by a sitting US head of state – during a trip in which he aimed to raise the issue of freedom of speech – the media, including his own following press corps, were swiftly escorted out.
An earlier bilateral meeting between Obama and Prime Minister Hun Sen had been characterised as “tense” by US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. As promised, Obama had raised the sticky issues with Hun Sen that Cambodian opposition parties, rights groups and US lawmakers had been urging him to discuss.
“In particular,” said Rhodes, “I would say the need for them to move toward elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate.”
In the subsequent meeting, after Hun Sen delivered his opening remarks, Obama spoke for no more than 10 seconds before the last of the reporters had been herded out.
This practice has been standard fare during Cambodia’s most recent turn hosting ASEAN meets as chair of the 10-member bloc, but the fact that even Obama’s own press pool were shown the door appeared to come as something of a surprise to the Americans.
Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, said afterward when asked who was responsible for kicking out the press: “If you want answers, speak to the organisers of ASEAN.
“You’ve got to talk to the [Cambodian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs; we had nothing to do with that. You’ve got to talk to the organisers of ASEAN, because our media wasn’t even allowed to hear the president speak,” he said.
At a briefing on the later ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn said the press had only been allowed in for the premier’s opening perfunctory statement.
“And, of course, [the] Prime Minister did not finish his opening remarks yet when the press were asked to leave the room,” he said.
As for the reportedly tense tone of the pair’s bilateral meeting, he directed reporters to an earlier briefing specifically on that topic delivered by one of Hun Sen’s personal advisers, Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sakhon.
Sakhon delivered his entire briefing in Khmer and refused to field a question from a Western reporter. He asked her if she had not heard what he had been talking about for the prior 30 minutes, then clarified that his English was “not good enough”.
Sakhon first summarised Obama’s comments during the bilateral talks, listing warm greetings the president had made to Hun Sen, condolences he had expressed over the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk and his note that there was an “important step moving towards democratic reform in Cambodia, both economic and political reform”.
He then summed up Hun Sen’s side of the meeting. Sakhon said the prime minister had told Obama he was satisfied with the president’s frank speaking, but that there had been an exaggerated campaign to create the perception that the human-rights situation in Cambodia was even worse than in Myanmar.
Hun Sen also reiterated a request for forgiveness of most of the country’s debt to the US, which Reuters reports is more than $370 million. Cambodia last year offered to repay 30 per cent of the debt, calling this a compromise over money it says was used by a pro-American government in the 1970s to repress its own people.
“The premier stressed that there are no political prisoners in Cambodia, but politicians who had abused the law must stand trial,” Sakhon said.
Those remarks came after he recounted how Hun Sen had clarified that the radio station of outspoken government critic Mam Sonando, Beehive Radio, had not been shut down and that Sonando, an individual who had broken the law, was dealt with by the courts and still had a chance to appeal.
Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in jail for masterminding a so-called secessionist plot – charges that have widely been dismissed by foreign governments and rights groups as politically motivated nonsense.
Shortly before the ASEAN Summit, a dozen high-ranking US lawmakers sent Obama a highly provocative letter that accused Hun Sen of having connections to an illegal logging firm connected to that case and urged him to bring up that and other rights issues during his visit.
In May, a large security force stormed Pro Ma village in Kratie, the site of the alleged secessionist movement, and opened fire on villagers – who have argued they were simply innocent victims of a land grab – with automatic weapons, killing a 14-year-old girl.