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Symbolism in short supply

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Strictly business: US President Barack Obama at the East Asia Summit plenary session in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

The great matters of high politics, statecraft and grand strategy are built on mountains of the mundane.

Tedious processions of technocratic exchanges, diplomatic correspondence, and meetings working out each and every detail of a significant matter must precede any grand breakthrough between countries.

But once all the details are worked out, and each issue and point of contention or agreement is essentialised, there is the equally important matter of translating the mountains of the mundane into the profound.

Every great matter in high politics demands some thought-provoking images, sound bytes or a grand symbol to convey the matter in a way that touches the heart of an issue and speaks to the soul.

Well-scripted meetings, followed by lofty speeches in ornately decorated conference centres, hold incredible value in the grand march towards greater peace, security, co-operation and human rights.

But lofty speeches need a beautiful backdrop, grand breakthroughs beg for a dramatic theme, and inspiring visits by foreign leaders cry out for a symbolic gesture that translates the great matters of politics and statecraft into something that can be remembered for all history.

US President Barack Obama’s trip to Cambodia was certainly historic. He was the first sitting leader of the United States to come to this country, and Cambodians had eagerly awaited his arrival.

But there was something that was profoundly missing in this historic moment.

In Thailand, Obama met King Bhumibol and was greeted by religious leaders at Wat Pho.

He also met Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who hosted an official dinner. She and Obama gave press conferences and reviewed honour guards.

In Myanmar, Obama was met by thousands of citizens who lined the streets and met the world’s most charming human-rights leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at her lakeside villa. Obama and Suu Kyi gave inspiring, albeit tempered, speeches.

In a symbolic nod to Myanmar’s dramatic turn towards democracy, Obama delivered an address at Yangon University.

In Cambodia, however, with little fanfare, the President’s motorcade drove through empty streets. There was no honour guard or charming women to welcome his arrival.

Obama’s visit was buried in the mundane with little pomp or flair, and I regret that he never saw Angkor Wat.

It is perhaps a fitting reminder that his visit, although highly anticipated, was never meant to be a grand breakthrough or an inspiring gesture of friendship renewed.

The visit was a meeting for ASEAN and not Cambodia – and, in the context of Cambodia, Obama’s trip was never intended to be ground-breaking, inspiring or profound.

The meeting was a courteous discussion on important matters, but the lack of a historic backdrop, theme or symbolic gesture shows that Cambodia still has far to go.

Political themes aside, I lament the fact the President’s visit did not afford a better window to the age-less beauty of Cambodian culture.

Leaders of governments must follow tight agendas, and their attention must be focused on the task at hand.

But Cambodia is a beautiful place, and I hope Obama was able to sense this beauty. I also hope that one day he will return with his family to see Angkor Wat.

Like Thailand and Myanmar, Cambodia is a sentimental country at heart, and I hope the President saw this in the idyllic painting he stood in front of with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Resorting to such a backdrop, in place of Angkor Wat, is a telling reminder that Cambodia’s glory continues to be ageless, even if the vision for the future is immature.

Youk Chhang is director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

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