First lady Michelle Obama in Cambodia freedom call

Michelle Obama urged Cambodian students to finish their education and speak up to demand greater freedoms and more equality on a landmark visit to a Southeast Asian country that has been ruled by an authoritarian strongman for decades.

First lady Michelle Obama in Cambodia freedom call

The US first lady’s comments did not explicitly criticise Cambodia’s human rights record or its government under prime minister Hun Sen. However, she sent a pointed message, and one that she delivered seated beside Sen’s wife, Bun Rany.

Human rights groups praised the remarks as a rare foray into foreign affairs for a first lady.

“Even though Mrs Obama didn’t name names, it’s more than we have heard in a long time from a first lady on a foreign trip,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“Now it’s time for President Obama to state publicly what rights benchmarks he expects to see from Cambodia, and press Hun Sen to commit to it.”

Obama wrapped up a five-day trip to Asia yesterday to push the US-led education initiative, Let Girls Learn, which she and the president announced earlier this month. The community-based programme, to be run by the Peace Corps, is meant to help millions of girls in the developing world stay in school and overcome economic or cultural pressures that force many to drop out.

The trip gave the first lady a chance to soak up some of Asia’s rich culture. In Japan, she visited Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and in Cambodia she travelled to Siem Reap, home to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex.

At a high school outside of Siem Reap, Obama walked the compound’s dirt paths and met 10 girls who shared tales of rising early to feed their families and help with farming before heading off on long treks to school and studying late into the night.

“You are role models to the world,” said Obama, seated on a wooden school chair beside the students and Cambodia’s first lady.

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