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An open letter to Barack Obama

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Barefoot US President Barack Obama (front 2nd R) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (front R) tour the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 . Photograph: Reuters

Barefoot US President Barack Obama (front 2nd R) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (front R) tour the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 . Photograph: Reuters

Dear President Obama:

Thank you for winning re-election — for both the sake of Americans and the peoples of the world — and proving once again the tenacity and strength of American democracy. And welcome to Cambodia.

It is imperative that, as the first sitting US president to visit this country, you raise the following matters with Prime Minister Hun Sen during your two-day stay in my birthplace.

Human rights, democracy

I cannot understand the difficulty of the dilemma facing you in attempting to balance strategic interests by curbing the influence of China and human-rights issues, which is a sea of violations that run deep in this country.

I cannot understand the dilemma because it’s a false dilemma.

America’s national interests in Cambodia are human rights and political pluralism. They cannot be any other.

I am fully aware of how naïve I sound to some analysts who paint the world in broad strokes and, in the process, erase pivotal, unique traits of Cambodia.

But if you are to take into consideration the unique historical development of Cambodia vis à vis superpower politics, it is in America’s strategic interests in the medium and long term to side with human rights and democracy.

Especially now, in light of globalisation and information communication technology.

If history is any teacher, the US must not repeat its disastrous policies of the Cold War years by once again turning Southeast Asia into a political theatre.

As you know, Cambodians bore the ultimate price during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Your visit can write a more admirable American narrative in Cambodia for the present and the future by making human rights and democracy the unwavering flagship of your strategy.

A public apology for the illegal US bombings of Cambodia, which created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide

Not only should you not repeat the failed US geopolitics of the Cold War here in Cambodia, but you have a unique, grand opportunity to right those wrongs by publicly acknowledging the illegal US bombings that took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.

The Cambodian victims of this campaign demand a public apology.

If you have the moral courage to make this public acknowledgement, it will do more good for us victims than any high-priced hybrid court will ever be able to accomplish in terms of offering reconciliation
and a sense of justice.

Push for ECCC Cases 003 and 004 as the firm condition for US withdrawal

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is an irredeemable political sham, embedding impunity with an international stamp of approval and legitimacy the longer it goes on.

The insidious political interference into cases 003 and 004 is but one illustration of this, and the new co-investigating judge, American Mark Harmon, has yet to do much on these cases.

The US must unequivocally support the basic principle of judicial independence and threaten to withdraw from the ECCC if cases 003 and 004 do not move forward.

This strong US stance — threat backed by action — will set the tone for the rest of the international community and will put the government of Hun Sen on notice of America’s seriousness in combating impunity and pursuing justice and reconciliation, not only for the Cambodian people but for Americans as well.

In sum, the Cambodian people, like the rest of the world, look to you for political leadership – but more important, moral leadership which, in this age of information and communications technology and globalisation, does translate into political capital.

CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education is a partner of the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights’ Speak Truth To Power project.

As you have often quoted this truth of Robert F Kennedy, may you be reminded when you meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen of how we Cambodians yearn to have you stand with us in tearing down the “walls of oppression and resistance”.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

With my highest regards,

Theary C. Seng
Founding president of CIVICUS: Center for Cambodian Civic Education and the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia

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