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White House: First lady won't avoid Cambodia's human rights record on visit later this week

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WASHINGTON — Michelle Obama won't avoid Cambodia's human rights record when she visits the southeast Asian nation this week, her final stop on a two-country trip to promote a new U.S. initiative to help millions of girls worldwide attend and complete school, the White House said Monday.

The first lady, who is traveling without the president, is scheduled to arrive in Japan, her first stop, on Wednesday. On Friday, she heads to Cambodia.

While the purpose of the five-day trip, from March 18-22, is to promote the "Let Girls Learn" initiative she and the president announced this month, Mrs. Obama will discuss the need for an open and inclusive political system in Cambodia and highlight basic values and principles that are important to the U.S., said Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

"She's going to have ample opportunity to reinforce the progress that's been made at the community level," Medeiros said on a White House conference call previewing the trip for the media. "She's going to have the opportunity to meet with civil society to reinforce our view of the importance of having an open and inclusive political system, to allow civil society to have a role in good governance."

Mrs. Obama, who will become the first sitting U.S. first lady to visit Cambodia, will also address these issues during a speech there, Mederios said.

The Cambodian government has been led since 1985 by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has a reputation for ruthlessness and a low tolerance for opposition. The country also has child prostitution and human trafficking problems, two issues that keep girls from attending school.

President Barack Obama was the first U.S. president to visit Cambodia in late 2012, but White House officials insisted then that Obama only visited because Cambodia was the host for two annual regional summits he has been attending as part of his focus on Asia.

Tina Tchen, the first lady's chief of staff, said on the call that Cambodia has done a lot of work on the girls' education issue and that Mrs. Obama would get to learn about community-based solutions to the problem. Cambodia is one of 11 countries participating in part of the "Let Girls Learn" initiative that is being run by the Peace Corps, employing thousands of its volunteers around the world, and being overseen by Mrs. Obama.

PHOTO: FILE - In this March 11, 2015, photo, first lady Michelle Obama claps after speaking at an event to mark Nowruz in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The White House says Michelle Obama will address Cambodia’s human rights record when she visits the southeast Asian nation later this week. While the purpose of her visit is to promote a U.S. effort to help educate girls worldwide, White House aides say the first lady will have "ample opportunity" to discuss progress and the need for an open and inclusive political system in Cambodia. She’ll also highlight basic values and principles that are important to the U.S. during a planned speech.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
FILE - In this March 11, 2015, photo, first lady Michelle Obama claps after speaking at an event to mark Nowruz in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The White House says Michelle Obama will address Cambodia’s human rights record when she visits the southeast Asian nation later this week. While the purpose of her visit is to promote a U.S. effort to help educate girls worldwide, White House aides say the first lady will have "ample opportunity" to discuss progress and the need for an open and inclusive political system in Cambodia. She’ll also highlight basic values and principles that are important to the U.S. during a planned speech.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The trip marks Mrs. Obama's first visit to Japan as first lady.

In Tokyo, she is scheduled to meet separately with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie. Obama made a state visit to Japan last year, and Abe is expected to make a reciprocal visit soon.

Mrs. Obama will also speak about the countries' mutual interest in international girls' education and announce a partnership between the Peace Corps and Japan's equivalent. The two first ladies will also meet with Japanese university students. Before leaving Japan, Mrs. Obama will stop in Kyoto to tour the Kiyomizu-Dera Buddhist Temple and the Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine.

Mrs. Obama called it a "tragic waste of human potential" when 62 million girls worldwide are not in school.

"It is also a serious public-health challenge, a drag on national economies and global prosperity, and a threat to the security of countries around the world, including our own," said in an opinion piece that appeared online in The Wall Street Journal.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Mrs. Obama is to arrive on Friday, she and her counterpart, Bun Rany, will meet with high school students participating in community-led education programs. Mrs. Obama will also meet with Peace Corps volunteers, and hold a round-table discussion with those volunteers, plus community and civic leaders who are working on projects to support girls' education in Cambodia.

Before departing for Washington, Mrs. Obama plans to visit Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

Tchen announced that YouTube celebrity Michelle Phan will join Mrs. Obama in Tokyo and ask the first lady questions that have come through on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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