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Friday, February 24, 2012

Tsongas reflects on visit to Cambodia

By Kristin Lynch

PHNOM PENH -- U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas sets off on the last leg of her Cambodian journey tomorrow, when she departs for the fabled Angkor Wat complex, a World Heritage Site that's considered to be among the most important archaeological locations in Southeast Asia.

For the past four days, Tsongas has been meeting with government leaders and civil-society organizations inside this steamy cauldron of Phnom Penh, a pulsing, buzzing capital filled with mangos, markets and motos on the banks of the mighty Mekong.

"My desire to come here was fueled by the fact that I represent Lowell, which is home to the second-largest Cambodian-American community in the United States," Tsongas said yesterday during a press conference facilitated by the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. "So many of my constituents remain very connected to this country, and I wanted to be more familiar with what their concerns are."

During yesterday's press conference, Tsongas alluded to some of these concerns, but was careful not to deliver too harsh a rebuke.

"My real intent is to learn," she said. "I didn't come here with a personal agenda."

"My real intent is to learn," she said. "I didn't come here with a personal agenda."

Corruption is a sore subject for Cambodia, which continually ranks near the bottom in international measures of government transparency. But Tsongas talked in general terms about the importance of "a system of laws that are open and transparent."

While acknowledging the strides Cambodia has made in the past several years to make its political system more democratic -- this is a country where less than 15 years ago, the current prime minister was publicly and violently battling with his main opponent on the streets of the capital -- Tsongas said she met with opposition leaders "who felt their voice wasn't given ample room."
Those would-be officials of the Sam Rainsy Party, Cambodia's main opposition party, with whom Tsongas met on Tuesday.

After that meeting, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said he encouraged the congresswoman to pressure the U.S. to help ensure that Cambodia's upcoming national elections, slated for June, are "free and fair."

He also discussed human-rights abuses with Tsongas, "especially the use of violence by armed forces over people," in reference to cases of military officials firing on protesting civilians. One such incident occurred as recently as Monday, Tsongas' second day in Cambodia, when an unidentified official shot into an unarmed crowd protesting Puma factory workers in a province near Phnom Penh.

Tsongas promised to take what she heard "home to Washington."

A day after her meeting with SRP leaders, on Wednesday, Tsongas met with Ouk Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party. In addition to bilateral issues, the two focused on ways Cambodia and Lowell could foster closer economic ties, Tsongas reported.

"For example, we talked a little about how to bring agricultural products to the city of Lowell because there are Cambodian-Americans who would like to purchase particular foods that cannot be grown in the U.S.," Tsongas said.

In addition to her meetings with government officials, Tsongas met with several nongovernment organizations, including the Wildlife Alliance, an environmental conservation NGO, and the Returnee Integration Support Center, an organization that helps American refugees who have been deported to Cambodia integrate into life. She also met with the American Cambodian Business Council.

"I've learned a lot and as I deal with these issues, my viewpoints will be shaped by much of what I've heard here, so in every instance where there's something relevant to Cambodia, I'll be better informed because I've simply been here," Tsongas said at yesterday's press conference.

Beyond the policy details, the Pearl of Asia still held some surprises for Tsongas, who marveled at the frenetic nature of its roads, bubbling with whizzing moto drivers and tuk tuks brimming with passengers and supplies.

"People travel up and down these streets without getting in any accidents, despite the fact that I see very few stop lights or stop signs. It's remarkable," she said.

And most importantly, she said, "it's nowhere near as hot as I thought it was going to be."

Kristin Lynch is a staff reporter on the national desk at the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. A native of Rancho Santa Margarita, a small town in Orange County, Calif., she covers most U.S.-related stories and has been following Tsongas' visit.

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