Published: November 20, 2012
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Four decades after American warplanes carpet-bombed this impoverished country, an American president came to visit for the first time. He came not to defend the past, nor to apologize for it. In fact, he made no public mention of it whatsoever.
President Obama’s visit to a country deeply scarred by its involvement with the United States did nothing to purge the ghosts or even address them. Mr. Obama made clear he came only because Cambodia happened to be the site for a summit meeting of Asian leaders, but given the current government’s human rights record, he was intent on avoiding much interaction with the host.
“How are you?” Mr. Obama asked Prime Minister Hun Sen when he showed up, unsmiling, for a meeting made necessary by protocol. “Good to see you.”
Those, as it turned out, were the only words he uttered publicly to or about Cambodia during his two days here. In private, aides said, Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Hun Sen about repression. While they usually characterize even the most hostile meeting in diplomatic terms, in this case they were eager to call the meeting “tense.”
But the president’s public silence disappointed human rights organizations that had called for a more explicit challenge to Mr. Hun Sen’s record of crushing opposition. And it left to another day any public examination of the United States’ role in the events of the 1970s that culminated in the infamous “killing fields” that wiped out a generation of Cambodians.
Theary Seng, president of the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia, said, “President Obama should have met with the human rights community and activists challenging the Hun Sen regime, and while then and there, offer a public apology to the Cambodian people for the illegal U.S. bombings, which took the lives of half a million Cambodians and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide.”
Gary J. Bass, a scholar of war crimes at Princeton, said Mr. Obama passed up a chance to publicly exorcise a painful history. “It’s a missed opportunity for Obama,” he said. “Obama is right to evoke America’s better angels, but that’s more effective when you give the complete story.”
White House officials were sympathetic, but they said the focus of Mr. Obama’s stop in Phnom Penh was on the summit meeting, organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, not on a visit to Cambodia or the relationship between the two countries.
“It’s not a lack of appreciation; it’s the circumstances of the visit,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser. “President Obama’s always willing to confront the history we have in the nations we visit and believes it’s important to acknowledge the past so we can move beyond it. The fact is, this particular visit was structured to focus on the summits that the Cambodians were hosting.”
Some activists said that Mr. Obama’s visit would help Cambodia’s transition.
“The U.S. president’s visit to Cambodia is an important part of that process,” said Youk Chhang, a survivor of the genocide and executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a private research group. “Cambodians look to the United States more than any other country as a beacon for leadership on human rights and democracy issues as well as what can be achieved by a free and fair market system.”
Michael Abramowitz, who directs the genocide prevention center at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recently visited Cambodia on a fact-finding mission on the Khmer Rouge trials.
He saw value in Mr. Obama’s visit. “Even though President Obama would likely not have visited Phnom Penh were it not for the Asean meeting, the presence of the first U.S. president on Cambodian soil has enormous symbolic importance,” he said.
Left undiscussed during the visit was the grim history between the United States and Cambodia. President Richard M. Nixon, trying to cut off North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam, ordered a secret bombing campaign that dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives on Cambodia from 1970 to 1973. The United States also backed a coup that ousted Norodom Sihanouk as head of state.
Many Cambodians responded by joining a Communist resistance, which led to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that went on to orchestrate a genocide that resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979, when the group was pushed out of power by Vietnamese forces.
Even today, Cambodia is struggling with that history. A United Nations-Cambodian war crimes trial is trying the senior surviving leadership of the Khmer Rouge on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The United States has supported and helped finance the trials, although human rights groups complain that the Cambodian government has been tampering with the court.
Mr. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled Cambodia for decades with little tolerance for dissent. Opposition leaders have been jailed and killed, and his allies have been seizing land on a large scale, according to human rights groups.
That complicated the question of Mr. Obama’s trip. Past presidents have confronted American actions; President Bill Clinton made a trip to Vietnam in 2000 to reconcile years after the war, while George W. Bush, during a trip to Eastern Europe, expressed regret for the Yalta accords, which he viewed as allowing the Soviet Union to control the region for decades after the end of World War II.
But Mr. Obama was reluctant to engage in a discussion of America’s responsibility in Cambodia while the current government is so repressive. Such a discussion could serve to elevate rather than diminish Mr. Hun Sen, American officials said.
Mr. Obama refused to make joint statements with Mr. Hun Sen, as he normally does with leaders hosting him, on the assumption that any criticism of the government would be censored, but the pictures of the two leaders side by side would be used to validate the Cambodian leader.
Instead, Mr. Obama used almost their entire private meeting to press Mr. Hun Sen on human rights, aides said. He emphasized “the need for them to move towards elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Even if Mr. Obama did not address the past during this visit, Mr. Rhodes noted that the United States government has been supporting the genocide trials and efforts to dispose of unexploded mines and ordnance.
“We have done important work to help the Cambodian people move forward with their tragic past,” he said. “We want to continue that support.”