WASHINGTON/PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Just days after the killing of a prominent Cambodian government critic last year during a crackdown by the country’s longtime leader, President Barack Obama dispatched Washington’s chief human rights envoy to Phnom Penh to attend the activist’s funeral.
In meetings with Cambodian authorities, then-Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski warned the military not to intervene in the political turmoil or else crucial U.S. ties would suffer, sending a clear message that America stood behind the opposition.
It was one example of the kind of high-level, rapid-response U.S. diplomacy that President Donald Trump has so far avoided in Cambodia even as the Southeast Asian nation – together with many of its neighbors - has lurched increasingly away from the democratic path.
As Trump prepares to depart on his first Asia tour, which will bring him face-to-face with a number of leaders with poor human rights records, his administration has been taking a more muted approach than his predecessor to such concerns, said current and former U.S. officials, rights activists and diplomats.
In addition to the situation in Cambodia, they cite what they see as a slow, overly cautious response to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, Trump’s failure to publicly call out autocratic leaders he meets over rights abuses, an eagerness to engage with the Philippines’ controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, and a less vocal approach to human rights in China.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster pushed back against the notion that Trump would downplay human rights on his Nov. 3-14 trip, saying he would speak out “about the importance of promoting freedom and individual rights.”
When asked why Trump condemns U.S. adversaries such as Syria and Venezuela on human rights grounds but not the Philippines, Turkey and Russia, McMaster told reporters on Thursday: “How much does it help to yell about these problems? It hasn’t really delivered in recent history anyway.”
The dominant view within Trump’s White House is that under his “America First” world-view human rights concerns related to allies and strategically important countries should be managed gently to avoid impeding job-creating business deals or undercutting security efforts such as isolating North Korea, several Trump aides said.
Soft-pedaling human rights may also help Washington avoid alienating countries in Southeast Asia that it wants to keep from moving further into China’s orbit, those aides said. Beijing puts little pressure on its neighbors over such issues.
This approach, however, has sown frustration among some U.S. diplomats who deal with human rights and disappointed dissidents in several countries, according to Reuters interviews with more than a dozen people involved in these matters in Washington and Asian capitals. The failure so far to fill several senior Asia and human rights posts at the State Department is a further handicap, they say.
Obama’s former top Asia adviser, Evan Medeiros, is one of those critical of what he sees as the Trump administration’s lower-key approach to human rights. “It’s a false dichotomy to say that somehow a focus on human rights detracts from American security or economic well-being,” he said.
Even under Obama, however, there were some in the human rights community who at times found fault with U.S. actions.
While the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was praised for stressing human rights in Asia-Pacific trade negotiations, he faced criticism that he suspended sanctions on Myanmar prematurely and lifted a ban on the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam.
“He spoke eloquently and sometimes delivered,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “But he also didn’t fully use the carrots and sticks of American power.”
Though Trump has said little on human rights beyond condemning adversaries such as North Korea and Venezuela, United Nations envoy Nikki Haley has been one of the few top aides who have spoken out more broadly. She visited sub-Saharan Africa and pressed leaders to tackle political and humanitarian problems.
Trump set the tone in Saudi Arabia in May when he told an audience that included monarchs and strongmen from the Muslim world: “We are not here to lecture.”
He has hosted several autocratic leaders - including Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had been frozen out of White House visits since leading a 2014 military coup - but has steered clear of publicly criticizing their records on human rights.
Such visits under Obama usually included addressing rights concerns, the Democratic president’s former aides said.
McMaster insisted that Trump preferred to deal with such issues “quietly in every relationship.”
One closely watched meeting will be with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump praised him in a phone call in April for a bloody anti-drugs campaign. An administration official told reporters human rights would be part of their “frank and friendly discussions.”
But the government in Manila has been feeling less heat from the Trump administration about extrajudicial killings linked to drugs crackdown, according to a foreign ministry official.
“It’s a very different White House under President Donald Trump, not like under President Barack Obama, who pushed human rights hard during his term,” the official told Reuters. “We are not hearing this from the White House.”
Another issue expected to be front and center is Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis.
Trump’s critics, including Democratic lawmakers, have chided the administration for what they have seen as a halting response. U.S. officials have been reluctant to label the situation as “ethnic cleansing” even though the United Nations has used the term. Myanmar rejects that accusation, saying action was needed to combat terrorism.
Two months after an outbreak of violence that sent more than half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing into Bangladesh, Washington has now sent a senior delegation, announced a planned visit by Tillerson on Nov. 15, and is threatening modest sanctions.
When Kem Ley, a popular Cambodian political commentator, was killed by a gunman in July 2016, Malinowski, the State Department official, flew to Phnom Penh just days later and met top aides to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for more than three decades.
Malinowski’s stern words helped give local diplomats leverage to press rights concerns behind the scenes, said one U.S. official involved in Southeast Asia diplomacy.
This year Hun Sen has intensified his crackdown, including the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, while also stepping up rhetoric against Washington.
The State Department has largely limited its response to statements of “deep concern.”
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia had not felt pressure from Washington and Trump was clearly taking a different approach than Obama.
“Their tone is lighter. Before, they would bully,” said ruling party parliamentarian Sok Eysan. The change under Trump, he added, “means we are on the right path towards democracy,” an assertion that contradicts human rights advocates who say the political climate has deteriorated.
In Vietnam, dissident Nguyen Quang A expressed pessimism about Trump’s visit.
Nguyen, who was detained by authorities on his way to meet Obama during a visit last year, said: “I don’t think Trump will talk about human rights. Just look at his words and actions.”
The White House has not signaled that Trump plans to meet any dissidents during his Asia trip, something Obama frequently did in his foreign travels.
There has been frustration among some U.S. diplomats in Beijing over perceptions that botched messaging from the United States signaled a retreat on human rights. But some U.S. officials said that behind the scenes the administration has been supportive of work in China on behalf of Chinese dissidents.
A Beijing-based diplomat from another Western country said, however, that U.S. participation in meetings between Western allies to coordinate strategy on human rights was much reduced, for example, when it came to putting out joint statements on issues of concern.
China has been “relieved” to see Trump giving human rights less weight, according to a Chinese diplomat in Washington.
But Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “As for human rights, we are always willing to have constructive dialogue with countries of the world on the basis of mutual respect.”
Additional reporting by by Jason Szep in Washington, Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon, Manuel Mogato and Karen Lema in Manila, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Matthew Tostevin in Bangkok; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Ross Colvin