The Straits Times
Published on Nov 19, 2012

Obama in Cambodia after rousing Myanmar welcome


PHNOM PENH (AP) - Making history twice within hours, President Barack Obama on Monday became the first US president to set foot in Cambodia, a country once known for its Khmer Rouge "killing fields." He left behind flag-waving crowds on the streets of Myanmar, the once internationally shunned nation now showing democratic promise.

Unlike the visit to Myanmar, where Mr Obama seemed to revel in that nation's new hope, the White House made clear that Mr Obama is only in Cambodia to attend an East Asia Summit (EAS) and said the visit should not be seen as an endorsement of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government.

Indeed, Mr Obama's arrival in Cambodia lacked the euphoria of his greeting in Myanmar, where tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Yangon to cheer the first American president to visit a country that until recently had long been isolated from the West. "You gave us hope," Mr Obama declared in Yangon.

In Phnom Penh, small clusters of Cambodians gathered in the streets to watch the motorcade pass by, without any of the outpouring that greeted Mr Obama in Myanmar.

From the airport, Mr Obama headed straight to the Peace Palace for a meeting with Mr Hun Sen that later was described by US officials as a tense encounter dominated by the president voicing concerns about Cambodia's human rights record. He specifically raised the lack of free and fair elections, the detention of political prisoners and land seizures, officials said.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Mr Obama told the prime minister that those issues are "an impediment" to a deeper relationship between the US and Cambodia.

Mr Rhodes said Mr Hun Sen defended his country's record, saying unique circumstances motivate its policies and practices. Still, the prime minister expressed a desire to deepen ties with the US, Mr Rhodes said.

Earlier in Myanmar, Obama addressed a national audience from the University of Yangon, offering a "hand of friendship" and a lasting US commitment, yet a warning, too. He said the new civilian government must nurture democracy or watch it, and US support, disappear.

The six-hour stop in Myanmar was the centerpiece of a four-day trip to South-east Asia that began in Bangkok and ends on Tuesday in Cambodia, where Mr Obama will visit with Chinese, Japanese and South-east Asia leaders in addition to attending the EAS with regional leaders.