US President Barack Obama (L) toasts with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at an East Asia Summit dinner last week. Photograph: Reuters
Well, well, the big visit of United States President Barack Obama to Phnom Penh for the East Asia Summit is over and “No Drama Obama” lived up to his moniker.
Indeed, the whole shebang will be remembered not for his presence, but for the way Cambodia’s chairmanship caused yet another squabble among ASEAN members.
As at the July ministerial meeting, last week’s war of words was about failing to reach a consensus about whether they had reached a consensus about handling the South China Sea sovereignty disputes.
Yeah, really. Go figure.
In reality, the most important aspect of the summit was related to what Obama had said earlier in Yangon.
Lauding Myanmar’s reforms, he signalled to other recalcitrant regimes that America’s hand would be extended to them if they would also mend their ways.
“I want to send a message across Asia,” said Obama. “We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past, we need to look forward to the future.”
Echoing her boss, National Security Council adviser Samantha Power said: “The president is sending a signal to other countries where reform either is not happening or repression is happening.”
She added: “If you take these reform steps, we will meet you action for action.”
In a nutshell then, Obama visited Myanmar because Washington was gratified by its reforms and rewarded it accordingly.
Restrictions on its imports into the US were removed and a $170 million scheme was initiated to boost good governance and capacity building.
The flip side of the message was that he would avoid visiting other places that were perceived as not reforming, like Cambodia and Vietnam.
Oh, but you will say he visited Cambodia.
Yes, but as the New York Times noted: “Obama made clear he came only because Cambodia happened to be the site for a summit meeting of Asian leaders.”
If the EAS has been held elsewhere, he would have given Phnom Penh a wide berth because of the government’s shoddy human rights record.
Obliged to spend a day here, he shunned Cambodian leaders as much as possible and spent his sole encounter with Hun Sen chastising the Prime Minister over the repression of oppositionists and civil society advocates.
Afterwards, Obama refused to make a joint statement with Hun Sen, as is customary with leaders who host him.
That poke in the eye, however, was nothing compared to the way he stiffed Vietnam. He simply refused to go there. And rightly so.
When it comes to detaining dissidents, suppressing minority and religious rights and crushing free speech and multiparty democracy, Vietnam makes Myanmar look like a paradise.
Last month, two musicians joined scores of other detainees when they got 10-year jail terms for writing songs that criticised Hanoi’s lack of social justice and human rights.
Said Amnesty International’s Rupert Abbott: “These men are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression through their songs and non-violent activities.”
In truth, the Vietnam Communist Party’s days are numbered, not due to American pressure, but because of domestic fury over the government’s economic incompetence.
Earlier this year, an internal revolt tried to oust Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, but fearing the party itself might split, the instigators lost heart and Dung survived.
The reprieve was short-lived and he was again assailed last month and forced to apologise for his shabby performance.
Then, in Hanoi’s National Assembly 10 days ago, representative Duong Trung Quoc rose and demanded Dung resign.
Not only was Quoc not reprimanded, but the state-controlled media reported what he’d said and the assembly later passed a resolution mandating a vote of confidence in Dung’s government.
It clearly signals the beginning of the end for Dung and almost certainly for the party’s dictatorial monopoly of the political arena.
And not before time. For the people of Vietnam understood Obama’s message, even if the cavemen in power did not.