US First Lady urges Cambodian girls to hold leaders accountable

SIEM REAP (AFP) - Mrs Michelle Obama was greeted by flag-waving schoolchildren on Saturday during the first trip by a sitting First Lady to Cambodia as she pushes a US-led initiative to combat a "crisis" in girls' education.

Mrs Obama visited a school on the outskirts of Siem Reap with Bun Rany, the wife of Cambodian strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, to hear first-hand from schoolgirls about the problems they face accessing education and staying in school.

Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms, the children waved the national flags of Cambodia and America, greeting the First Lady in carefully practised English.

The Harvard-educated lawyer is using a five-day trip to Japan and Cambodia to highlight how 62 million girls around the world are denied the right to go to school, primarily for economic or cultural reasons.

Cambodia's education system was ravaged in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule.

Huge numbers of intellectuals and teachers were killed as Pol Pot's regime dismantled modern society in their quest for an agrarian Marxist utopia.

The traumatic period left the country impoverished and with an acute shortage of teachers, something that still haunts its education system to this day.

According to Cambodian government statistics 68 per cent of children are enrolled in primary education, but this drops off to 17.7 per cent by lower secondary and just 8.8 per cent by upper secondary.

Room to Read, a charity involved in children's education in Cambodia, says girls are three times less likely to be in school than boys.

The US government has launched the "Let Girls Learn" initiative, which Mrs Obama is promoting during the trip. The programme will be run by Peace Corps volunteers in 11 countries and promote girls' education.

Before flying to Cambodia, the First Lady visited Japan, a major donor to the initiative.

Alongside Cambodia, the initial recipient countries are Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo and Uganda.

The trip comes at a time when the White House is pursuing its foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia, seen by many has an attempt by Washington to counter China's meteoric rise and increasing influence in the area.

South-east Asia is a key component of that pivot and the Americans are keen to woo the region.

During President Obama's last two trips to Asia, southeast Asia has featured prominently, including a 2012 visit to Cambodia - a country that was once secretly carpet bombed by the US.

White House officials said his wife's trip is "meant to underscore the breadth of our interactions" within the region.

President Hun Sen marked three decades in power in January and is regularly criticised by campaigners for ignoring human rights and stamping out dissent.

While it is unlikely Mrs Obama will bring up human rights abuses, the White House has said she will "share American perspectives about education and good governance".