SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AP) — U.S. first lady Michelle Obama traveled Friday from Japan to Cambodia — a journey from one of Asia’s richest countries to one of its poorest — as part of a campaign to help millions of girls around the world stay in school.
Mrs. Obama arrived in the city of Siem Reap, home to Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex, where she planned to sightsee following activities Saturday focused on the U.S.-led education initiative “Let Girls Learn.”
The White House has said Mrs. Obama is expected to “share American perspectives about education and good governance” but was unlikely to directly criticize Cambodia’s human rights record.
Mrs. Obama’s trip is the first by a sitting American first lady to Cambodia, whose strongman leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, has ruled for 30 years with little tolerance for dissent.
She was not expected to meet Hun Sen but will spend Saturday with his wife, Bun Rany, who greeted Mrs. Obama at the airport Friday night.
The two first ladies are to meet Cambodian high school students participating in community-led programs. Mrs. Obama will also deliver a speech to U.S. Peace Corps volunteers and later hold a round-table discussion with those volunteers and others working on projects to support girls’ education in Cambodia.
Earlier this month, she and President Barack Obama launched “Let Girls Learn” to lift barriers that block more than 62 million girls around the world from attending school.
Japan is partnering with the U.S. to promote the campaign and announced during Mrs. Obama’s three-day stay it will devote 42 billion yen ($340 million) to girls’ education projects.
The U.S. has earmarked $250 million in initial funding for the program, which will be run by the Peace Corps and begin in 11 countries – Cambodia, Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo and Uganda.
The White House said Japan and Cambodia were chosen for Mrs. Obama’s trip because one is a donor country and one is a country in need, and it reflects a U.S. commitment to be more involved in the Asia-Pacific region.
In an online travel journal, Mrs. Obama said the trip felt personal. She shared a story, now familiar to Americans, in the hopes of inspiring children overseas.
“This visit is part of a journey that began decades ago, back when I was a little girl,” wrote Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, saying she came from a modest background, but worked hard in school and her education transformed her life. “My education is the starting point for every opportunity in my life.”
The trip also allowed the first lady to soak up some of Asia’s rich culture. Before leaving Japan on Friday, Mrs. Obama flew from Tokyo to the ancient capital of Kyoto to visit shrines and temples including Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple founded in 780. She also tried her hand at taiko drums after watching a rousing performance by students who drummed, jumped and gesticulated with all their might.
“You guys are good!” she said. “That’s good exercise. Wonderful.”
The students then invited Mrs. Obama to join them, and performed a number as she and a student drummed on a big, round taiko drum.
In Cambodia, she will get a first-hand look at the country’s educational challenges.
Cambodia was devastated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The brutal regime closed schools and executed intellectuals. Foreign aid and investment have helped the economy grow rapidly in the past decade but its education system and overall development remain stunted.
Even today, most Cambodian children drop out of school, according to 2014 government statistics that show 95 percent of children enter primary school but only 20 percent finish secondary school.
Poverty is the main problem, especially in rural areas, where children are pulled out of school to help support their families, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.
Cambodia’s problems with child prostitution, child labor and human trafficking also play a role, and often target girls.
In 2012, President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cambodia and held a private meeting with Hun Sen that White House officials described as tense. The president privately pressed Hun Sen on a variety of human rights and political issues but made no public comments critical of his host.
Human rights groups hope Mrs. Obama will speak out publicly.
“While it’s welcome that Michelle Obama is taking up the important cause of educating girls, she also needs to recognize that Cambodia is a human rights basket case,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. He urged her to “speak up about rampant violence against women, impunity of security forces and failure of democratic governance.”