Along the Phnom Penh waterfront the city’s landmark flags have been raised and the street children and beggars are being removed – an unwanted sight for a government out to impress the biggest gathering of world leaders this country has ever seen.
At the center of this will be Prime Minister Hun Sen. His role as host of a series of summits, scheduled for later this week, will increasingly be focused upon as Cambodia’s turn as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has proved controversial.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will head the stellar guest list while the Prime Minister’s critics are also lining-up as they did at a similar meet of foreign ministers held in July, which ended in acrimony among ASEAN’s 10 members.
Chief among those critics is Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a report the New York-based watchdog has just released on political and extrajudicial killings in Cambodia over the last 20 years.
Entitled, Tell Them That I want to Kill Them, the report details hundreds of alleged political killings that have been investigated by the United Nations, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and rights groups and journalists.
It looks at the “A–Teams” or death squads, which it says were established in the 1980's, attacks on opposition parties in the 1990's, the bloody 1997 coup d'etat and the more recent killing of well known environmentalist Chhut Wutty.
HRW also wants Obama to push Hun Sen on human rights and tie foreign aid more closely to finding justice for the victims of government-sponsored attacks.
But whether this summit is a success or not will depend much more state-related issues, alongside answers to a few very basic questions,which include: Has Vietnam and Cambodia dropped their opposition to the construction of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos? Will ASEAN be in a position to launch its integrated economic community by 2015 as scheduled? Has ASEAN devised a united approach to the Code of Conduct with China over dispute resolution in the South China Sea?
These are actually the pressing issues of state that need to be addressed. But over this year, with Cambodia as chair, ASEAN officials have conducted their business amid a contrived cloak and dagger atmosphere, ignoring journalists covering the conferences and summits.
This summit will provide Cambodia with a rare opportunity to play the gracious host and bask in the international limelight. Its critics have genuine concerns that deserve to be raised and how Phnom Penh addresses those concerns will leave a much greater impression than the streets cleared of unwanted homeless children.