By Mark O’Brien
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, United States — With only a days remaining until President Barack Obama embarks on a historic trip to Southeast Asia, human rights organizations hope rights abuses in the countries he will visit do not go unnoticed.
On Saturday, the President leaves for visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, also known as Burma, as part of the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit. Obama’s visits to Cambodia and Myanmar will be the first to either country by a U.S. President.
The White House said Obama is going ahead with the visits despite some rights groups’ criticism of the trip being premature because the countries have yet to institute reforms after decades of military rule.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch said the upcoming trip was an opportunity.
“We’re calling on President Obama to really strongly and publicly raise these human rights concerns, to press for accountability, and to insist that it can’t be business as usual with the Cambodian government, given the gravity of these human rights violations,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson in an interview with Voice of America.
The rights group released a report this week showing more than 300 people have been killed in the last 20 years in Cambodia under the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The group criticized the Cambodian government for ignoring the problem rather than investigating it, adding that some of those believed to be responsible have even been promoted.
“The moral strain on this trip is Cambodia,” an anonymous activist told Reuters after a meeting with U.S. government leaders in Washington. The White House met with international human rights activists on Tuesday.
Officials reportedly told the rights groups that “Obama would take a tough approach with Cambodian Prime Minister Sen in private,” according to the Reuters report.
Another group calling on Obama to take action was the Committee to Protect Journalists. On Thursday, it issued an open letter to the President on its website, asking that he stay committed protecting the right of free expression worldwide.
Specifically, the committee asked that Obama “exercise U.S. influence and seek the redress of press freedom violations in Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand,” where the committee said press freedoms are worsening.
The committee noted that Burma does not have a free press, despite improvements in recent years. It also noted that Cambodian Prime Minister Sen continues to suppress criticism of his government, and that Thailand has laws that can send some journalists to jail for comments posted on their websites.
For further information, please see:
Committee to Protect Journalists — Obama Should Address Media Rights in Southeast Asia — 14 November 2012
Reuters — Rights Groups Press Obama Aides on Myanmar, Cambodia — 13 November 2012
The Washington Post — Human Rights Group Urges Obama to Address Cambodian Abuses — 13 November 2012
Voice of America — Rights Group Urges Obama to Address Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia — 13 November 2012