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Obama warns Cambodian youth of ‘risk’ in political change

Prime Minister Hun Sen (fourth left) stands with other world leaders to pose for a photo yesterday at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre during the 10th East Asia Summit.
Prime Minister Hun Sen (fourth left) stands with other world leaders to pose for a photo yesterday at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre during the 10th East Asia Summit. AFP

Obama warns Cambodian youth of ‘risk’ in political change

Speaking at a town hall meeting in Malaysia, US President Barack Obama on Friday told a young Cambodian that youths must be aware of the “risks” of pursuing political change, just a day after a US State Department official characterised the Kingdom as “a country where democratic values are under threat”.

“What do you want to see from young people like us in the future?” asked Deng, a Cambodian participant at the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) event, at which the president took questions.

“I think the most important thing for young people is that they’re not trapped in the past,” Obama replied, before saying it is the responsibility of youths to ask “why” questions that challenge the status quo on issues such as pollution, gender rights and discrimination.

Change does not happen without vision, hard work and awareness of the challenges, the president advised, before adding words of caution.

“If you’re trying to bring about political change, there may be a lot of risks . . . Are you willing to take those risks? Are you willing to make sacrifices?”

Political blogger Ou Ritthy praised the president’s remarks. The encouragement of critical thinking is “extremely crucial” to people’s participation in politics, he said.

“Without critical thinking, Cambodians are not able challenge the political leadership of both ruling and opposition parties and not able to change the status quo and meaningfully bring about the democratic change in the country,” he added, citing as an example a lack of criticism among young opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters of leader Sam Rainsy’s aborted return to the country following the issuance of a warrant for his arrest.

Obama’s remarks were in line with testimony before the US Senate committee on foreign relations on Thursday, where deputy assistant secretary for the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Scott Busby expressed “grave concern” over events that “have severely limited political space” in Cambodia.

Citing the beatings of opposition lawmakers, the arrests of activists, and legal and parliamentary action against opposition leaders Rainsy and Kem Sokha, Busby’s testimony questioned the government’s commitment to democratic reforms.

“Free and fair elections cannot happen in an environment where peaceful expression and activity by government opponents is subject to arbitrary limitations,” reads a transcript of the hearing, which goes on to express US concern over potential violence in the 2017 and 2018 commune and national elections.

“We have strongly voiced our concerns about intimidation of the opposition, noting that the Cambodian people continue to express a preference for greater freedom and accountability from their government,” Busby concluded, while reaffirming US support for civil society and the National Election Committee.

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