Michelle Obama on Saturday urged Cambodian students to finish their education, follow their dreams and speak up to demand greater freedoms and more equality in their Southeast Asian country.
The U.S. first lady did not explicitly criticize Cambodia's human rights record or its government, which has been ruled for 30 years by authoritarian strongman Hun Sen, the prime minister. But she sent a pointed message, and one that she delivered seated beside Hun Sen's wife, Bun Rany.
Mrs. Obama is on a five-day trip to Asia to promote the U.S.-led education initiative "Let Girls Learn," which she and the president announced earlier this month. The community-based program, 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.
"Let Girls Learn" is starting in 11 countries, including Cambodia. Mrs. Obama's visit follows a three-day trip to Japan, which is helping to fund the project.
The trip has given the first lady, who is traveling without her husband, a chance to soak up some of Asia's rich culture. In Japan, she visited Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and in Cambodia she traveled to Siem Reap, home to the famed Angkor Wat temple complex.
At a high school outside of Siem Reap, Mrs. Obama greeted students with a traditional Cambodian gesture of hands pressed together, with a head bow. She walked the compound's dirt paths and then met with 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 Mrs. Obama, seated on a wooden school chair beside the students and Cambodia's first lady. Education brings empowerment, she added, and urged the teens to "finish your education and then follow your dreams."
"Use your voices to advocate for good things — whether it's more education, better health care, more freedoms, more equality," she said. "Not just here in Cambodia, not just here in Siem Reap, but in the world. I hope that you all will feel empowered to do that."
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