Obama Makes Cambodian History

Those of you who know me best know I love politics. Thus far, I have stayed away from this topic in regards to Cambodia, because my job here is to stay away from local politics and try to help my community. Considering recent events, however, I have decided that I want to share with you all a little bit about what goes on in Cambodia in relation to politics and show you some of the things that I have read and some of the things that I have heard from locals. The point of this post is not to offer my view of the events, but just to give you a little insight and allow you to come to your own conclusions.

The event that has precipitated this post is Mr. President Barack Obama’s visit to the country for the ASEAN summit meetings. For Cambodia, this was an historic event. Obama is the first sitting president ever to visit the country. America has had its dealings with Cambodia in the past, most notably when the U.S. carpet bombed much of Cambodia dropping over 2.7 million tons of bombs on the country during the Vietnam War in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (There are still unexploded ordnance in the country resulting from these attacks today). But before earlier in the week on Monday, November 19, no president had ever dropped in for a meeting.

A quick aside about the U.S. bombings:

The bombings started under President Johnson and were continued by President Nixon from 1965 to 1973. The civilian casualties sustained by Cambodians at this time may very well have led the people to support the previously unpopular Khmer Rouge, ultimately leading to the Cambodian genocide. This is debatable, though I find it to be a very valid point. I remember hearing sometime last year, that some Cambodians believed that they were being bombed simply because they looked like the Vietnamese, especially if they tended to wear the Vietnamese-style conical hats.

It still surprises me that Cambodians do not seem to harbor ill feeling for Americans as a result of these bombings. Here is a map of the bombings in Cambodia:

You can see how extensive these bombings were. Also, for a little comparison, the Allies in World War II dropped about 2 million tons of bombs, including the atom bombs in Japan, during the entire war. This means that there is a very good chance that Cambodia is the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Anyway, there was a plethora of excitement surrounding Obama’s visit. In my village, nearly everyone I interact with on a day-to-day basis was asking me about Obama, Air Force One, and the beautiful car the President rode in through Phnom Penh. My host family was watching the news coverage on TV when I got home from work. Everyone knew about it and everyone was talking about it. Its funny, I’ve noticed recently that the rest of the world seems to follow American politics. Even around the time of the U.S. election, some of the people I work with would ask me about it and nearly everyone knows the president is Obama. In Phnom Penh, the foreigners I would interact with would bring up the U.S. elections and offer their opinions about it. I say its funny because I think that most Americans don’t really care that much about the politics in other countries. I’d say that many can’t even name the Prime Minister of England (David Cameron) or Australia (Julia Gillard) or even know that the Australian PM is a woman. I’m not passing any judgement, I just find this extremely interesting.

With all the hype surrounding Obama’s visit, a local newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, featured this article. There are a few important points here: (1) the press was not allowed be present for any important discussions between Obama and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, (2) Obama allegedly pushed Hun Sen to embrace fair elections and confront human-rights issues, and (3) Hun Sen insisted that he holds no political prisoners and human-rights violations in Cambodia have been overstated by the press. Hun Sen’s defensive remarks came just days after the arrest of eight individuals living near Phnom Penh International Airport who painted “S.O.S.” on their rooftops before the arrival of the U.S. President. Other reported human-rights violations that I have taken note of over the past few months include numerous land grabs (many supposedly due to the expansion of logging), the detention of activists protesting land grabs in Phnom Penh as well as other provinces, the murder of a reporter investigating illegal logging in the province of Ratanakiri, and the murder of an activist working for the NGO Natural Resource Protection Group in the province of Koh Kong. With all the bad press, it’s not that difficult to figure out why Hun Sen kept his meeting with Obama as private as possible.

It is fairly clear how the international community views Hun Sen and his dealings with the country, but how do the people themselves feel? Though I am trying not to make this post about the way that I feel about the Cambodian government, I am sure that most of you can guess where I stand, and if you can’t the next sentence does give it away a bit. I once asked a PC staff member (a Cambodian national) why the people tolerate Hun Sen’s behavior. He told me that the people are simply appeased by the current government. After years of civil war and anguish, the people are just happy that there is no more fighting and that they can simply go about their lives without living in fear. This is a sentiment that can be easily seen especially amongst the older population in Cambodia. One of the midwives I work with was just 18 years old at the start of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. She was living in Phnom Penh at the time and was sent to Takeo Province to work in the rice fields, eat watery rice porridge, and live in fear. She was telling me the other day that she likes Hun Sen. When I asked her why she said it was because he helped the Cambodian people during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Before she was hungry, sick, and overworked, but then Hen Sun put an end to all of that. I asked her how the felt about Sam Rainsy, the leading opposition leader who is currently living in exile and facing a prison sentence. She said that she didn’t like him because he never did anything to help her, not like Hen Sun had. It is very easy as an outsider to forget that Hun Sen is a symbol of freedom for many Cambodians, whether this is valid or not, it is a very real and very present feeling.

Wanting to get a different opinion on the matter, I asked my Khmer tutor about Hun Sen. She told me that she didn’t like him so much, but she felt that he was probably going to be the leader of Cambodia for a very long time. She said that from the top down to the bottom, the government was riddled with Cambodian’s People Party (CPP – Hun Sen’s political party) members who fix elections. Even at the village level there are village and commune chiefs who make sure that the CPP is the only viable party. She used to live in a village a few kilometers from me but left because the village chief and the school director were very forceful in promoting the CPP. They told her to shun and avoid contact with the teachers who supported the SRP (Sam Rainsy Party). She said that she liked Sam Rainsy because he is a progressive and has a good vision for the economy. He is popular with the younger, more educated population in Cambodia. She also said that she admires the U.S. and thinks that there should be term limits for the leader of her country, just like in America. The conversation I had with her was extremely interesting and I was actually pretty shocked about how politically aware she was. It is a shame though, because usually she cannot express these opinions and it seems that the circumstances which cause this to be true will not be changing anytime in the near future.

Despite these differing views about Hun Sen’s government, in my experience Obama’s visit to Cambodia was highly anticipated and warmly welcomed by the Cambodian people. The Cambodian people really look up to America, despite America’s dodgy past relations with the country.

I’ll leave you with the New York Times article regarding Obama’s visit. It seems to offer a pretty fair account of what happened and offers points arguing both the pros and cons of his visit. Enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving friends,


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3 Responses to Obama Makes Cambodian History

  1. Rich says:

    As always Ashley…. VERY VERY interesting and informative. ( Smiles )
    And I Loved how you started this OFF…. ” Those of you who know me best know I Love Politics”
    YOU?… Politics?…. REALLY? …. LOL
    Have a Wonderful Day Ashley.
    Love, Rich and Sandy

  2. Dawn says:

    Interesting blog and I liked that you tried to keep your views out of it and that you spoke to people with opposing views. What Cambodians have been through and their continued struggles make me think of how good we have it here in the states. Although I think we all need to make more of a commentment to what happens here and around the world. Keep your mind and heart open in your expierence! Love you Mom

  3. Joan Bancroft says:

    Hi Ashley,
    I am a PCV living in Thailand. We were in Cambodia this past weekend and I wanted to learn more about the country. I appreciated this post. Would you be interested in corresponding with me via email. I am not asking for a lot of time, mostly some travel tips as I would love to come back. I really liked the country and the people.

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