Obama Should Stay Away From Cambodia

As the U.S. presidential election approaches, Barack Obama is in danger of allowing his good offices to be used as part of an attempt to deny Cambodians the opportunity for self-determination that Americans take for granted.

President Obama is due to visit Cambodia next month as the country holds the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2012. Ahead of Cambodian elections in July 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, has been engaging in a familiar pattern of cracking down on the voices of opposition. He knows that it’s an easier and safer way to win elections than allowing democratic debate.

The summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that Mr. Obama plans to attend should be moved to another country in order to deny Hun Sen the legitimacy he is seeking to garner from the event.

Those with a record of opposition to Hun Sen are in dread of the period right after Mr. Obama’s scheduled visit.

The owner of the Cambodia’s Beehive radio station, Mam Sonando, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Oct. 1 on politically motivated charges that he had been part of a secessionist movement. The radio station had allowed airtime for such inconvenient issues as maternal mortality, human trafficking, labor rights, environmental protection and the need for an independent judiciary.

Hun Sen had publicly called for Mam Sonando’s arrest on June 26. He was held on July 15, two days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton left the country after attending an Asean regional forum.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya P. Subedi, in July recommended reform [pdf] of the country’s electoral system. Among his 18 recommendations was the key demand for the reform of the National Election Committee to make it a neutral body. This has been rejected by the Cambodian government.

Hun Sen is counting on donors continuing to turn a blind eye to the fact that the election committee is dominated by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and is even situated inside the Interior Ministry.

The minimum requirement for proper elections next year is that the National Election Committee be reformed. Letting it operate in its current form would allow voter-registration fraud on a massive scale. This means that election results are a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, as leader of the opposition, I remain abroad in forced exile to avoid a 12-year jail sentence on politically motivated charges. The Cambodian National Rescue Party — the united democratic opposition that I lead — won’t validate such a bogus exercise next year by taking part.

There must be meaningful reform in advance or Cambodia will go the way of Belarus, reduced to international isolation after an opposition boycott led to a one-horse race in which the dictator Alexander Lukashenko was the only candidate.

This year, the Cambodian political landscape saw what could prove to be its biggest change since the extinction of the Khmer Rouge in 1998. The Human Rights Party, led by Kem Sokha, agreed to merge with the Sam Rainsy Party to create a united democratic opposition. We believe that together we have enough support to win a free and fair election. We aim to carry out a New Deal for Cambodia. Prohibition of land theft will be at the core of our program. Our government will cancel all land, forest and mining concessions granted by Hun Sen that were associated with the eviction of legitimate landowners. Local communities will be given rights to decide how land, forest and fishing zones are managed.

We will seek to rid the civil service of the corruption that cripples it and turn it into a meritocracy associated with a sense of public service. We will introduce a health service that gives Cambodians access to basic care.

Our government will make it illegal for any organization, including political parties, to get new members through coercion. We will reform the National Election Committee to make it independent and introduce an age limit for prime ministers to avert the specter of Hun Sen, or anyone else, ruling the country for life.

Hun Sen has been power for even longer than Mr. Lukashenko. He is the only Cold War communist leader to survive in power today. During the Cold War, states in Eastern Europe and Asia fell to communism like dominoes. But a domino can fall in either direction. The free world must seize the opportunity presented by Cambodia’s elections. Forcing Hun Sen to play by democratic rules would not only empower the Cambodian people to determine their own future, it would also give an impetus to democracy and human rights in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and North Korea.

Hun Sen responded to the recommendations from Mr. Subedi, a Nepalese professor of law, by telling him to go away and worry about his own country. He used similar language in 2006 and 2007 in response to criticism from the previous U.N. envoy to Cambodia, the Kenyan constitutional lawyer Yash Ghai. If everyone did that then the United Nations wouldn’t exist and neither would international law.

If Hun Sen won’t engage with the international community and the Asean summit isn’t moved, President Obama, the leader of the world’s standard-bearer of democracy, should take Hun Sen at his word and stay away.

Sam Rainsy is an exiled member of the Cambodian Parliament.

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