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Before Obama visit, Cambodians clear streets -- or take to them

November 14, 2012|By Emily Alpert

As Barack Obama prepares for the first visit by a United States president to Cambodia this month, the country is reportedly preparing for him too -- by hiding street children from sight in Phnom Penh.

“If the leaders from across … the world see beggars and children on the street, they might speak negatively to the government,” municipal spokesman Long Dimanche told the Phnom Penh Post, explaining their plans to “collect” children who beg or sell fruit and put them in a nearby center.

Rounding up street children is exactly what United Nations human rights officials feared would happen during preparations for the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations summit.

It is also the latest twist in the campaign to sway President Obama and other leaders, as frustrated activists trying to spotlight abuses compete with  Cambodian leaders eager to impress the world as an emerging economy.

Besides pulling children off its streets, Phnom Penh officials have urged people living on major boulevards to avoid putting their garbage in front of their homes, and they are prepared to shutter schools along key roads. Illegally dumping trash “could impact public order, traffic, [the] beauty and image of Phnom Penh as well as of the whole country,” officials warned in a public notice.

While the government has tidied its streets, protesters have begun camping outside the American Embassy to press for the release of two detained activists. Though exiled dissident Sam Rainsy urged Obama to stay away from Cambodia, other government critics are seizing on his visit as a chance to highlight reported abuses, from forced evictions to unpunished killings.

Human Rights Watch pleaded for the president to publicly demand reform during his trip to Cambodia. Under the “violent and authoritarian rule” of Prime Minister Hun Sen that spanned more than two decades, more than 300 people have been killed in politically motivated attacks that were never credibly investigated, the rights group said in a new report.

Their findings follow those of U.N. human rights officials who, in a report last month, pinpointed impunity for grave abuses and persecution of activists as persisting problems. Cambodian security forces have increasingly turned gunfire against people demanding rights, they said.

“When we protest, we are faced with violence,” Tep Vanny of the Boeng Kak community told the Cambodia Daily while protesting outside the Embassy. “I hope the arrival of President Obama will bring democracy to Cambodia.”

Rainsy, however, argued that the visit would do just the opposite. "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," he said in the New York Times.

The Cambodian human rights group Licadho said the real problem is whether outside forces keep pressure on after the event.

"Human rights defenders, government critics, land rights activists and others face huge risks both during and in the days and weeks following the summits, as soon as the world’s eye is averted," the group said in a statement emailed to The Times.

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