Obama’s Historic, but Very Different Visits
By | November 21, 2012

Beef patties remained raw and tomatoes uncut yesterday afternoon at Mike’s Burger House on Russian Boulevard, where rumors had circulated that U.S. President Barack Obama might stop off for a bite before his departure from Cambodia.

U.S. President Barack Obama attends the 21st Asean and East Asia summits on Tuesday in Phnom Penh. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

Plans to welcome the president at Mike’s Burgers had to be canceled due to growing problems in the Middle East, said Chenda Im, the fast-food restaurant’s Khmer-American owner.

According to Mr. Im, U.S. Secret Service agents had visited his restaurant some weeks ago ahead of a possible burger-and-fries meal for Mr. Obama.

“I was excited and feel sad that it’s not happening now. I’m a little heartbroken,” Mr. Im said yesterday.

In some ways, the deserted scene at this popular burger house was a fitting symbol of Mr. Obama’s visit to Cambodia.

During the past few days, Mr. Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, which is in the midst of a sweeping democratic reform process. It was a similar situation for Mr. Obama’s visit to Cambodia, which was this year’s chair of Asean.

The two historic visits, however, proved to be of very different natures for Mr. Obama and have highlighted a widening gap between the two countries—in international perception at least.

In Rangoon, Mr. Obama addressed more than a thousand students in a speech at Rangoon University, met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside residence, and toured the historical Shwedagon Pagoda barefoot.

Although the country has only recently emerged from almost four decades of military dictatorship, Mr. Obama said he was impressed by the country and even applauded its leaders for their reform-minded agenda.

Lining the streets of Rangoon, thousands of Burmese turned out to welcome Mr. Obama to the once reclusive but resource-rich country.

They wore T-shirts with his portrait, but also ones of Burmese President Thein Sein and Ms. Suu Kyi. Some even stopped work to see the motorcade pass by and wave Burmese and American flags at the president—much to Mr. Obama’s liking it would seem. There were press conferences, photo opportunities and speeches.

“The president was very moved by the outpouring of people lining the streets…. And when he left, he said [he] would have liked to have spent even more time in this country if he could. So I think he was quite moved by the day,” Mr. Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One on Monday.

“In each meeting, the leaders could not have been more positive and gracious. And President Thein Sein went out of his way; multiple times in the meeting he used the U.S. president’s campaign slogan,” Mr. Rhodes said, referring to Mr. Thein Sein’s use of the “Forward” slogan from Mr. Obama’s recent election campaign.

Just a few hours after leaving Burma, Mr. Obama arrived in Phnom Penh on Monday to find no one lining the streets in greeting. Journalists and photographers were corralled 50 meters away from the president at the airport. Streets were emptied. People who even wanted to catch a glimpse of the president’s passing motorcade were told by armed police and military police to stand well back from the road.

The U.S. leader’s meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen was also very different to his recent one with Mr. Thein Sein.

After describing the meeting with the Burmese president as “very positive,” Mr. Rhodes described Mr. Obama’s bilateral meeting with Mr. Hun Sen on Monday evening as “tense.”

Almost all of Mr. Obama’s comments to Mr. Hun Sen focused on human rights. He called on Cambodia to ensure free and fair elections next year, raised the issue of land seizures, and expressed concern for the recent sentencing to 20 years in jail for independent radio station owner Mam Sonando.

After the meeting, Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon said that Mr. Hun Sen had informed Mr. Obama that Cambodia’s human rights record was not as bad as other countries’ and that he was the victim of “a campaign to slander the facts related to the human rights situation and democracy in Cambodia.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. Hun Sen sat beside each other at a dinner for East Asia Summit leaders on Monday night, and though they clinked champagne glasses, Mr. Obama appeared stony faced to Mr. Hun Sen’s smiles.

As the U.S. president’s convoy drove down an empty Russian Boulevard yesterday evening on the way to the airport, almost all the shops were closed and the deflated staff at Mike’s Burger House were sleeping on benches.

Stepping out of his presidential limousine, Mr. Obama avoided lengthy goodbyes and jogged up the steps into Air Force One and jetted away.

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