Cambodian human rights group Licadho says that around 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by the land seizures over the past decade, making it a priority issue needing more attention. The World Bank has suspended assistance to Cambodia, pending resolution of some land-grab cases.
“We see hundreds of thousands of families evicted, activists illegally charged and jailed, [and] land ... grabbed,” says Eang Vuthy of Equitable Cambodia, a group that lobbies for land rights, adding that Cambodia's push for economic growth is, in some ways, trampling the rights of poorer citizens.
While Obama met with Hun Sen Monday evening, he is in town for a meeting of Asian leaders including China Premier Wen Jiabao, India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on the last leg of a southeast Asia tour that included Thailand and Myanmar.
Observers see the US “Asia Pivot” and American attempts to boost its presence in the region as China rises, as key to understanding Obama's historic visit to Myanmar, a close ally of China.
Like Myanmar, Cambodia has close economic and political ties with China, with the US falling behind. Chinese businesses have invested more than $8 billion in Cambodia since 2006, eight times US investment.
Much of the investment has gone into infrastructure such as roads, needed in a country that was devastated by a 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover and civil war up until the 1990s.
While the Chinese largesse – along with international aid that makes up a huge chunk of the country's budget – has boosted the economy and infrastructure, there has been a downside, as seen in the land grabs and related rights abuse allegations.
With an eye on elections slated for 2013, Hun Sen’s government suspended granting any new land concessions in May.
But no matter how hard the opposition campaigns on human rights issues, most expect the current leader will remain in power because of de facto rigging of the political system.