Who would have thought that the simple act of visiting a neighbour could be seen as historic? In this day and age of global communication, technology that facilitates instantaneous news reports and high-speed travel, reaching out to people across the globe doesn’t present the same challenges as it did many years ago. Yet, in the world of politics and diplomacy – with all of its hurdles – making an active effort to learn about other cultures, seeking to come to a place of understanding and attempting to see issues from another point of view is seen as ‘historic’.
President Obama added Myanmar and Cambodia to the list of nations to which he has paid a visit and has offered commentary on democracy and human rights.
The President’s visit to Cambodia marks the first by a sitting U.S. President to the small nation in Southeast Asia — and it was made clear by White House officials that the purpose of the visit is to attend the East Asia Summit, not endorse the Cambodian government or its Prime Minister. Cambodia is a country with a name that is more synonymous with war and destruction — the ‘killing fields’ of Khmer Rouge — than it is for extending diplomatic ties. According to the Associated Press, “President Obama headed straight to the Peace Palace for a meeting with [Prime Minister] Hun Sen that later was described by U.S. officials as a tense encounter dominated by the president voicing concerns about Cambodia’s human rights record. He specifically raised the lack of free and fair elections, the detention of political prisoners and land seizures.” Further “Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama told the prime minister that those issues are ‘an impediment’ to a deeper relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia. Rhodes said Hun Sen defended his country’s record, saying unique circumstances motivate its policies and practices. Still, the prime minister expressed a desire to deepen ties with the U.S., Rhodes said.”
The somewhat tense nature of this visit contrasts with Mr. Obama’s visit to Myanmar where large crowds on the streets of Myanmar enthusiastically greeted the President, and residents noted further hope for democracy and better international relations. Also known for human rights violations, Myanmar is noted to be moving quickly towards change within an environment that promotes greater freedom. The President met with opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president and a former military junta member who, since taking office in March 2011, has actively sought to reform the government.
Crossing borders to break down barriers that exist between different regions and cultures is the best way to foster true global growth and development. Conflict and wars are both exhausting and costly, and they’re destructive to those in- and outside the affected nations so any sincere effort to get to a place of understanding should be looked upon favourably. It’s admirable to reach out but it also presents a ‘food for thought’ moment; let’s face it, when your own nation has had, and continues to have, its share of problems with freedom, fair elections and human rights violations it takes a certain mixture of pride and nerve to send dignitaries to point out to other nations what they’re doing wrong.
But opening the lines of communication means recognition of effort — and it has to start somewhere. Hopefully these historic overseas visits will provide inspiration on all sides at the Summit to make an effort to fix what’s wrong in their own respective back yards. And in the back yard of the United States, instead of seeking to cut and run, maybe our own citizens will wake up and support efforts that will bring increased fairness and democracy to us all right here at home, so that our leaders can sound that much more credible when making requests of other nations that we still need to work on right here at home.
Photo credits: Associated Press