Obama chastises Cambodia's leader on his home turf

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) ushers U.S. President Barack Obama on arrival at the Peace Palace for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and U.S. summit in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012, following the 21st ASEAN Leaders Summit.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia On a history-making trip, President Obama Monday paid the first visit by an American leader to Burma and Cambodia, two Asian countries with troubled histories, one on the mend and the other still cause for concern.

The stops were the last two in a quick three-nation Obama trip to the region. It began in Thailand.

The U.S. announced Tuesday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was accompanying the president, would leave for the Middle East in hopes of helping to negotiate a truce to halt the conflict between Israel and Gaza. She took off soon after the announcement was made.

The widening conflict there threatened to overshadow Mr. Obama's tour of Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip since he won re-election earlier this month.

After a marathon day that took him from Thailand to Myanmar to Cambodia, the presidenrt worked the phones with Mideast leaders into the early hours of Tuesday morning, aides said.

Mr. Obama's fast-paced, pre-Thanksgiving trip vividly illustrated the different paths the regional neighbors are taking to overcome legacies of violence, poverty and repression.

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  • Cheered by massive, flag-waving crowds, Mr. Obama offered long-isolated Burma a "hand of friendship" as it rapidly embraces democratic reforms. Hours later, he arrived in Cambodia to little fanfare, then pointedly criticized the country's strongman leader on the issue of human rights during a tense meeting.

    Mr. Obama was an early champion of Burma's sudden transformation to civilian rule following a half-century of military dictatorship. He's rewarded the country, also known as Myanmar, with eased economic penalties, increased U.S. investment, and now, a presidential visit, in part to show other nations the benefits of pursuing similar reforms.

    "You're taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people," Mr. Obama said during a speech at Burma's University of Yangon.

    The Cambodians are among those Mr. Obama is hoping will be motivated. White House officials said he held up Burma, a once-pariah state, as a benchmark during his private meeting Monday evening with Prime Minister Hun Sen, the autocratic Cambodian leader who has held power for nearly 30 years. Hun Sen's rivals have sometimes ended up in jail or in exile.

    Unlike the arrangement after Mr. Obama's meetings with Burmese President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the U.S. and Cambodian leaders did not speak to the press following their one-on-one talks. They did step before cameras briefly before their meeting to greet each other with a brisk handshake and little warmth.

    In private, U.S. officials said, Mr. Obama pressed Hun Sen to release political prisoners, stop land seizures and hold free and fair elections. Aides acknowledged the meeting was tense, with the Cambodian leader defending his practices, even as he professed to seek a deeper relationship with the U.S.

    Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the president told Hun Sen that without reforms, Cambodia's human rights woes would continue to be "an impediment" to that effort.