Since my trip home, I’ve been thinking a lot about America and its relations with Cambodia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Phnom Penh to discuss ASEAN and a dispute over the South China Sea. The Cambodian government has always had particular interest in improving relations with America, and recent history has shown that the U.S. stance has influence over Cambodian policy.
Example: in May, thirteen women were arrested for protesting eviction from their homes at Boeng Kak Lake. In 2007, the lake was sold by the government to Shukaku, Inc., a company owned by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin (also a friend of Prime Minister Hun Sen), to build a housing and commercial development. The lake, one of Phnom Penh’s treasures, was drained and filled with sand. The 4,252 families living on the lake were all evicted, many of them forcibly. Since then, residents have been protesting. During a peaceful protest in May, 13 women were suddenly arrested, taken to court, and sentenced to two-and-a-half-year jail terms without due process.
In June, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong visited Washington, D.C. Cambodian-Americans (“Khmericans”) stood outside the State Department in protest, with signs reading, “We want no dictator,” “No fake democracy” and “Arrest Hor Namhong now.” He wasn’t arrested, but Clinton took a stance on the Boeng Kak 13, encouraging their release. A few weeks later, the women were set free on appeal. The court upheld their convictions, but their sentences were reduced to time already served. The 13 women are again busy protesting their eviction and believe Clinton’s talks with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong helped secure their freedom. “Cutting our punishment to one month and three days came because of pressure from the local and international communities, especially from Hillary Clinton,” Tol Srey Pov, one of the 13 stated.
Borei Keila is another community consisting of over 300 families that were evicted in January, to be replaced by the development company Phan Imex (a company backed by the government). Many of the families have been left completely homeless, stripped of their livelihoods, and imprisoned for protesting the eviction. One of the Borei Keila residents stated, “To date, we are sheltering under leaked tents, canvas and stairs close to piles of rubbish.”
During Clinton’s visit, fifteen representatives of the evicted families of Borei Keila filed a petition asking her to pressure the government to resolve the conflict. Cambodians hold high hopes in the U.S. government. Lawmaker Mu Sochua said that the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila residents turned to Clinton for help because “no one one else had the courage to take action and put pressure on the government. [Clinton] speaks, she demands, she stands up, she delivers, she commands respect for her words, for her actions. Even women in Boeung Kak lake and Borei Keila know that.”
Borei Keila’s letter was received by the U.S. Embassy, but Clinton has instead chosen to use this visit to focus on regional issues involving ASEAN. She has failed to even mention Cambodia’s land issues. Similarly, when the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, Surya Subedi, visited the Borei Keila families in May while they were living under their leaky tents in makeshift slums, he told them: “The conditions in which you have been forced to live don’t seem to be adequate for the 21st century,” a weak statement considering the reality of the situation.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, said, “The Cambodian government is desperate for improved relations with the United States. Clinton should tell Hun Sen that continuing grave human rights violations will come at the cost of US support. She should insist that the Cambodian government set out specific, time-bound measures to reverse the country’s increasingly disturbing rights record.” I have to agree. Being diplomatic is important, but if the U.S. took a stronger stance for human rights the situation certainly couldn’t worsen. And I’m sure Ms. Clinton would receive just as warm a welcome.
Government officials are not the only ones fascinated by America. Cambodian people are also enthralled, all thanks to Hollywood. American pop culture exists in many forms in Asia. I remember the first time I came here and the most popular song was “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston. It was even playing on a battery-powered radio out in a village with no electricity in the middle of and island in the Mekong in Kratie Province. A ten foot by ten foot poster of Leonardo Dicaprio hangs on the side of a salon near my house. In karaoke sessions, the employees’ favorite song is always “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Dubbed Jackie Chan movies blare on every bus ride. Ladyboys in drag shows buy Beyonce DVDs in the market and steal moves from her. During conversations with Khmers, I always inevitably get questions about Britney Spears or California. It might not be our most up-to-date culture, but it is still our culture. Cambodians know about America.
But do we as Americans know about Cambodia? It might be surprising for many U.S. citizens that Cambodia exists in most major cities in America in the form of immigrant communities. I even found some in Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C. during law school. In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s and early 80s, the US granted asylum to thousands of Cambodians. Now, about 300,000 Khmer immigrants live in the United States (and probably more). Just like America is in Cambodia, Cambodia also exists in America.
It may also be surprising to many Americans to know more about the atrocities that occur in Cambodia, specifically those relating to land. Boeng Kak Lake and Borei Keila are not isolated incidents. In the past few months, a rural village was surrounded by military police for opposing the sale of their land to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s friends, military personnel working as enforcers for a rubber company shot at four protesting villagers, a 14-year-old girl was killed, and one of Cambodia’s most activist environmentalists, Chut Wutty, was killed by police while researching illegal logging. And I could go on.
In 2011, Prime Minister Hun Sen replied to a question on whether he should be worried about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia. “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead … and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.” And that’s exactly what he’s been doing.
This is Cambodia. And here is Clinton talking about ASEAN and the South China Sea, but really, aren’t there more important things to discuss?
Finally, just because I find statistics interesting, here’s a quick country comparison:
GDP: $12,900,000,000 (12.9 billion)
Median age: 22.9 years
Life expectancy: 63 years
Literacy rate: 73.6% of the population
GDP: $15,090,000,000,000 (15.09 trillion)
Median age: 36.9 years
Life expectancy: 78.5 years
Literacy rate: 99% of the population