Rights groups press Obama aides on Myanmar, Cambodia

Reuters News

11/13/2012 8:20:01 PM - Reuters News

By Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - International human rights activists met senior White House officials on Tuesday to press President Barack Obama to take a tough line with leaders in Myanmar and Cambodia during his forthcoming Southeast Asia tour.

The talks, which included Samantha Power, a top Obama adviser and outspoken expert on genocide, touched on what the president will say during his landmark visit to Myanmar to prod the quasi-civilian government to do more to curb sectarian violence, activists said.

The visit, part of a November 17-20 swing through Southeast Asia, would be the first U.S. presidential trip to Myanmar, also known as Burma. Obama is going ahead with the visit despite rights groups' criticism it is premature because reforms have yet to be consolidated after decades of military rule.

A top official with a leading rights organization provided details of the meeting on condition of anonymity. Roughly half a dozen activists took part in the talks at the White House.

They left the meeting satisfied that Obama intends to push hard on human rights and political and economic reform in closed-door talks with reformist President Thein Sein and in his public remarks, including a speech.

But the activists were concerned Obama would not issue any public denunciation of rights abuses in Cambodia during his visit to Phnom Penh to attend an East Asia summit.

"The moral stain on this trip is Cambodia," an activist who attended the White House meeting told Reuters.

White House officials told the rights groups, however, that Obama would take a tough approach with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in private, the activist said.

"We of course intend to raise human rights issues in both Burma and Cambodia," a senior administration official told Reuters.

Power, considered a "humanitarian hawk" within the administration, wrote a blog on the White House website last week signaling that Obama would use the Myanmar trip to pressure the government to do more on human rights.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party has been in power for 27 years. He has faced criticism from international rights groups for his authoritarian style and a succession of land grabs, often to benefit foreign companies.

Obama's presence in Myanmar will highlight what his administration sees as a first-term foreign policy achievement of launching the country's transition toward democracy, and a development that could help counter China's influence in an important region.

But a Reuters investigation into a wave of sectarian assaults on minority Muslims in western Myanmar painted a troubling picture: the attacks were organized, central-government military sources told Reuters. They were led by nationalists in Myanmar's Rakhine state tied to a powerful political party there, incited by Buddhist monks, and, some witnesses said, abetted at times by local security forces.

The findings were published on Sunday in a Reuters Special Report.

Washington takes some credit for pushing Myanmar's long-ruling generals toward democratic change, which helped bring Thein Sein to office in 2011. Obama will also meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)