Obama presses Cambodia's Hun Sen to improve rights record

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged Cambodian leader Hun Sen on Monday to hold fair elections and release political prisoners as he took a firm line on human rights abuses that activists say have increased in recent years in the Southeast Asian country.

U.S. President Barack Obama attends the 4th ASEAN-U.S. leaders' meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh November 19, 2012. REUTERS/ Samrang Pring

Fresh from a visit to Myanmar, where many freedoms have blossomed in the country’s dramatic return to democracy, Obama told Hun Sen that Cambodia’s record on human rights would be an impediment to deeper ties with the United States.

“He (Obama) highlighted a set of issues that he’s concerned about within Cambodia,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama.

“In particular, I would say the need for them to move toward 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.”

Rhodes, who agreed the talks could be described as “tense”, said Obama had focused all of his comments on human rights and had told Hun Sen that Cambodia has “much further to go on that set of issues”.

In response, Hun Sen said concerns over human rights were exaggerated and that Cambodia had a better record than many countries, U.S. and Cambodian officials said.

Hun Sen also reiterated a request for Obama to forgive most of the country’s debt of more than $370 million to the United States. Cambodia last year offered to repay 30 percent of the debt, calling this a compromise over money it says was used by a pro-American government in the 1970s to repress its own people.

International rights groups met U.S. officials last week to urge Obama to bring up rights issues with Hun Sen, who has tolerated little dissent since consolidating power in a 1997 coup but has brought stability and economic growth to Cambodia.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier regarded as a shrewd tactician, is on course to remain one of the world’s longest-serving leaders after elections next year that his critics say are heavily skewed in favor of his ruling party.

In a report last week, Human Rights Watch said more than 300 people had been killed in politically motivated attacks since an agreement in 1991 that ended a civil war, but not one person had been convicted. It pointed the finger at Cambodian security forces and called on Obama to demand an end to impunity for abusive officials.

Hun Sen’s government has also been criticized for ignoring the land rights of hundreds of thousands of poor Cambodians by leasing out huge land concessions to well-connected companies that have proceeded to evict residents.

Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Alison Williams