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How can the dictator smile? : Obama holds ‘tense’ meeting with Cambodia leader

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President Obama is escorted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen before a meeting in Phnom Penh. (Vincent Thian / Associated Press. / November 19, 2012)

By Kathleen Hennessey
November 19, 2012, 9:17 a.m.
World Now

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On the heels of his historic trip to MyanmarPresident Obama landed in Cambodia on Monday night for a dose of summitry and quickly found himself in a “tense” meeting with his host, an aide said.

Obama met with Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen in the marble hallways of the Peace Palace, his first stop after leaving the country’s eastern neighbor. Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, and he cast his trip as a reward for that government’s recent “flicker of progress” toward democracy after decades of authoritarian rule.

But Obama was not willing to shower the same encouragement on Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official and target of human rights watchdogs.

Hun Sen did not smile before entering the private meeting with the president. Once out of earshot of the media, Obama told the prime minister that Cambodia must undertake fair elections and release political prisoners, calling such shortcomings an “impediment” to deepening ties between the two countries, according to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communication.

Rhodes had signaled that Obama would deliver a frank message in Cambodia. The president took heat from human rights activists in the buildup to his Asia trip — not only for his visit here, but for his decision to honor Myanmar’s steps toward greater democracy. They argued the president was moving too quickly to reward too little progress, with the military in Myanmar still wielding influence and some political prisoners still being held.

Obama is in Southeast Asia to underscore his effort to strengthen ties in the region, part of his broader plan to counterbalance China’s growing influence.

The president is set to attend a meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit before returning to Washington on Tuesday.


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