What Barack Obama Should Talk About in Cambodia

Cambodia is atwitter over the recently re-elected US President’s first visit to Phnom Penh—and the first visit ever by a sitting American President.

But what should be on the POTUS’s agenda while he’s making his official rounds? And will he be too distracted by the more powerful attendees at the East Asia Summit to devote much time to the concerns of this tiny, impoverished nation? (Too bad about those street-seller kids and beggars who will be locked up for the duration of the ASEAN Summit).

Here’s some ideas.

1. Land rights

Land rights are a major issue in Cambodia, where a kleptocracy is swiftly selling off much of the nation to private investors, usually at the cost of rural people who either have no land title, or are unable to stand up to powerful government pressure. Many people have lost their land as a result of this profiteering, and poor land rights activists are now demanding that President Obama address their concerns.

The government has been disturbingly willing to use deadly force to enforce its land grabs: the essentially un-punished deaths of forest activist Chut Wutty and 14-year-old Heng Chantha this spring over land issues speak eloquently of the lows current leadership is willing to sink to. They’re also using the legal system against the little people: Cambodian NGO LICADHO recently came out against a new, intentionally murky agricultural draft law, which could spell dire consequences for Cambodian farmers.

Meanwhile, 11 percent of Cambodia’s land mass has passed into the hands of major firms, according to Global Witness, and around 400,000 have been pushed off their land since 2003 alone—and more deals are going forward every day.

Obama needs to play it delicately, but most experts agree that the best way to help the poor hold onto their land in Cambodia is pressure from powerful outside sources. The World Bank decided to block loans to Cambodia in 2011 over the contentious Boueng Kak Lake evictions: Obama might want to take a note out of that playbook.

2. ASEAN Unity

Cambodia helped lead the recent schism between ASEAN nations over the South China Sea, the first real dissension between these nations in history. They were pressured by China, a nation that’s made huge investments here in recent years. Obama’s Asia Pivot means that he’s likely going to pay much more attention to the region in the next few years.

A united and calm, productive ASEAN is excellent news for the USA: Obama should pay some serious lip service to the let’s-just-get-along sentiment, delivered with a rather serious tone. Doing this without drawing the ire of China will be tricky, but let’s hope the President is up to the job.

Obama isn’t the only heavy-hitter to be visiting the region: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will also be visiting Cambodia, where the Association for Southeast Asian Defense ASEAN will be meeting. Expect issues of unity to be very much on the menu

3. The Xayaburi Dam

Laos may be building the massive and potentially ecologically devastating Mekong dam, but Cambodia will be forced to bear the brunt of its effects downstream. Laos’ decision to go ahead with the $3 billion dam project without securing the consent of those downstream is both foolish and potentially extremely dangerous.

Obama needs to send a strong message to the dam’s primary beneficiaries—Laos, Thailand and China–that continuing the project could pose a dire threat to the relative peace the ASEAN region currently experiences. US interests are stake here, too.

There’s also the matter of the 400-megawatt hydro-power Sesan 2 Dam in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, which the Cambodian government recently announced will begin to be constructed in 2014. Per usual in Cambodia, this project will pay off big-time for investors and will likely spell destruction and poverty for the poor who actually live in the region—as well as yet more damage to an already delicate Mekong watershed system.

As more than 50,000 people could stand to lose out from the Sesan dam project, according to some projections,Obama would do well to mention the likely massive environmental damage both products could cause, especially for poor sustenance farmers and fishers that are unlucky enough to live downstream.

4. The Khmer Rouge War Tribunal (ECCC) 

The UN-backed Khmer Rouge War Tribunal (ECCC) is running out of money fast, and it’s desperately looking for more donors to save it, as chief donor Japan grapples with post-tsunami cleanup—$4 million is needed simply to fund November and December.

Unfortunately, this ideologically commendable project has been sidetracked in recent years by rampant spending, shady government interference, and inefficient management, and the four aging Khmer Rouge leaders it’s meant to publicly punish aren’t getting any younger.

Although no studies tracking public sentiment exist, I’ve certainly heard a lot of grumbling in recent months over the vast expense ($160 million so far) and slow results of the KRT from both locals and expatriates in Phnom Penh. None of these are very good signs.

The US has funded the KRT and continues to do so: in September, it pledged $5 million, after a 2009 $12 million offering.

It’s unknown if Obama will visit the KRT, but I’d say it’s extremely likely. If so, Obama should reiterate in no uncertain tones that the survival of the Tribunal depends on it managing to rein in spending, fight back against corruption and move things along faster—and that international donors can’t be expected to keep this wheezing endeavor afloat forever, including the deep-pocketed US.