PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
On a history-making trip, President Barack Obama on Monday paid the first visit by an American leader to Myanmar and Cambodia, two Asian countries with troubled histories, one on the mend and the other still a cause of concern.
Obama’s fast-paced, pre-Thanksgiving trip vividly illustrated the different paths the regional neighbors are taking to overcome legacies of violence, poverty and repression.
Cheered by massive flag-waving crowds, Obama offered long-isolated Myanmar a “hand of friendship” as it rapidly embraces democratic reforms. Hours later, he arrived in Cambodia to little fanfare, then pointedly criticized the country’s strongman leader on the issue of human rights during a tense meeting.
Obama was an early champion of Myanmar’s sudden transformation to civilian rule after a half-century of military dictatorship. He’s rewarded the country, also known as Burma, with eased economic penalties, increased U.S. investment and now a presidential visit, in part to show other nations the benefits of pursuing similar reforms.
“You’re taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people,” Obama said during a speech at Myanmar’s University of Yangon.
The Cambodians are among those Obama is hoping will be motivated. White House officials said he held up Myanmar, a once-pariah state, as a benchmark during his private meeting Monday evening with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the autocratic Cambodian leader who has held power for nearly 30 years. Hun Sen’s rivals have sometimes ended up in jail or in exile.
Unlike the arrangement after Obama’s meetings with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the U.S. and Cambodian leaders did not speak to the press after their one-on-one talks.
They did step before cameras briefly before their meeting to greet each other with a brisk handshake and little warmth.
In private, U.S. officials said, Obama pressed Hun Sen to release political prisoners, stop land seizures and hold free and fair elections. Aides acknowledged the meeting was tense, with the Cambodian leader defending his practices, even as he professed to seek a deeper relationship with the U.S.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the president told Hun Sen that without reforms, Cambodia’s human-rights woes would continue to be “an impediment” to that effort.
White House officials emphasized that Obama would not have visited Cambodia had it not been hosting two regional summit meetings the U.S. attends, a rare admonishment of a country on its own soil.
The Cambodian people appeared to answer Obama’s cold shoulder in kind. Just a few small clusters of curious Cambodians gathered on the streets to watch his motorcade speed though the streets of Phnom Penh.
A welcome sign did greet Obama upon his arrival — but it heralded Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, not the American president.
Human-rights groups fear that because Obama delivered his condemnation of Hun Sen in private, government censors will keep his words from reaching the Cambodian people. And they worry the prime minister then will use Obama’s visit to justify his grip on power and weaken the will of opposition groups.