U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is being pressed to ensure that democratic reforms and human rights are at the top of the agenda when he meets here Tuesday with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). With opposition leader Sam Rainsy in self-imposed exile to avoid what is widely considered to be politically motivated defamation charges and 17 opposition members and activists in prison, rights groups say any improved diplomatic ties must be accompanied with Cambodian guarantees for reform.
Cambodia, by refusing to speak up with several other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over territorial claims in the South China Sea, finds itself in a position of increasing political leverage in the U.S.-China race for influence in the region. “Cambodia is actually one of the small countries that shouldn’t have as much of an influence on that kind of political power play,” said Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank. But with its membership in the 10-nation ASEAN, it’s “becoming a key country.” “But also because Cambodia is so close to China and has been somewhat of a Chinese pawn in the sense of an ASEAN unity,” he said, “Cambodia has now become a key small country for the U.S. real pivot to Asia.”