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EXCLUSIVE: Dueling Missives Press Obama, Cambodian PM on Human Rights

FILE - The upcoming ASEAN summit will be held at Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California.

More than 100 Southeast Asian parliamentarians are urging President Barack Obama to address regional human rights issues during his meetings with ASEAN leaders next week, according to an open letter posted online Thursday.

Signed predominantly by MPs from Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia — but also with some signatures from lawmakers in Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand — the letter says they "recognize and understand" the administration's need to strengthen economic and security relations with Southeast Asian leaders, but called on Obama to "press [leaders] on unfulfilled human rights commitments and to directly raise specific concerns with them."

The lawmakers note that many Southeast Asian countries have taken "dramatic steps backward" in the areas of democracy in the last two years.

The letter was posted hours after a group of seven Democratic U.S. senators issued a separate and unrelated letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is expected to attend the upcoming ASEAN summit at Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California.

"We are troubled by the recent increase in social and political turmoil in your country ... [particularly] the numerous reports that your government continues to deny the legitimate demands of ordinary Cambodians for a more transparent, fair, and democratic Cambodia," the letter said.

FILE - Cambodian riot policemen line up as supporters of opposition parties gather for demonstrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 15, 2013.
FILE - Cambodian riot policemen line up as supporters of opposition parties gather for demonstrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 15, 2013.

Following on a similar letter that a bipartisan group of 16 U.S. Congressional representatives sent to the Cambodian leader on Dec. 3, Thursday's letter to Hun Sen also expresses concerns about polling irregularities in the 2013 national elections and "reports of systematic property and land appropriation" by domestic and transnational companies.

Signed by Democratic Sens. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Al Franken of Minnesota, Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the letter calls on the Cambodian leader to address human trafficking within his own borders and to ensure the immediate release of American citizen and human rights activist Meach Sovannara, who has been jailed since July 2015.

On Wednesday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz was asked about reports that the Cambodian prime minister threatened protesters who would demonstrate against Phnom Penh's human rights record at the upcoming summit, which is scheduled to kick off Feb. 15.

"A lot of these countries are in different phases of becoming democratic — with a small 'd,'" Schultz said. "Those are reforms that [Obama] takes very seriously and pursues in private conversations and in public forums. So, I'd expect the right to protest and the right to peacefully be heard falls under that umbrella and do expect the president to talk about the importance of democratic reforms as part of the summit conversations next week."

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.