While politically powerful leaders cosied up for the ASEAN Summit in the secure
confines of Phnom Penh's Inter-Continental Hotel, the disillusioned from the
region struggled to make their voices heard from the outside.
inside the hotel went on between the ten ASEAN members, as well as leaders from
China, Japan and South Korea. Trade, the war on terrorism, tourism and economics
topped the agenda.
But NGOs, opposition groups and regional human rights
activists who were kept out focused their efforts on human rights, persecution
At the ASEAN People's Forum, a parallel conference organized
to highlight human rights concerns across the region, speakers denounced the
lack of attention the ASEAN leaders were paying to such issues.
the voice of the people who suffer," declared Kek Galabru, president of local
human rights NGO Licadho.
"[At ASEAN] they talk about trade, borders and
tourism, but not any word about respect of human rights. It is time countries
did not just look at their own problems, but those of neighboring countries as
Attempts by various groups to bring their complaints to the summit
were met with hostility. Protesters were kept off the streets and activists
became embroiled in scuffles with police.
The first voices of dissent
were heard at the Southeast Asian People's Festival, which ran from October 29
to November 3. The festival aimed to highlight to ASEAN delegates the concerns
of peasants, the urban poor and other marginalized groups. However a planned
protest march was stopped by the Cambodian government.
"Why are the
leaders so scared of us?" asked Toni Kassim, a representative of the Southeast
Asian Committee for Advocacy. "We are merely trying to voice our hopes and
aspirations for the future of ASEAN communities."
The ASEAN People's
Forum addressed similar issues and was attended by local and international NGOs
and human rights activists. Delegates from 12 countries attended workshops on
issues ranging from child trafficking to rights violations in Myanmar, as well
as the implications of the war on terrorism.
A recurring theme was the
apparent disregard by ASEAN leaders of the problems faced by ordinary people,
particularly the poor, indigenous minorities and women.
"We call upon
ASEAN governments to be more responsive to their people," said Irene Xavier, a
representative from the Committee for Asian Women. "Development was meant for
us, but we now have to cope with all the problems that have arisen because of
these development projects."
Many at the conference were frustrated by
the ASEAN leaders' reluctance to talk to participants.
"The reaction of
the ASEAN delegations to isolate themselves from civil society is unjustified
and unreasonable," said Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of Forum-Asia, a
regional umbrella group of human rights and development organizations.
"Governments and ASEAN as a body need to realize that the work of human rights
activists is a help, not a hindrance."
But that ability to help went
unrecognized. An attempt by a delegation representing the human rights activists
to deliver their recommendations to the ASEAN leaders was blocked.
wanted to present a letter from the ASEAN People's Festival to the leaders of
ASEAN+3 to express our concerns, but they prevented us from doing this," said
Licadho's director Naly Pilorge. "We were surrounded by about ten to 15 military
police ... and there was a lot of pushing and shoving."
Sam Rainsy also encountered resistance during his hunger strike to decry the
cost of hosting the summit. He said the money would be better spent elsewhere at
a time when Cambodia's farmers faced severe food shortages.
[ASEAN] a costly irrelevance because I don't think the meeting brings any
benefits to ordinary people who are facing food shortages," he said. "We should
have used the millions to give rice to the poor."
Rainsy's protest began
late on November 3 at Wat Ounalom, but heavy-handed police action prevented him
from staying there more than a few hours. He said officers had unsuccessfully
tried to stop him entering the pagoda and had threatened the monks.
monk] said the police took him to the station and held a gun to his chest," said
Rainsy. "They said he had to make me leave otherwise they would take matters
into their own hands. He was terrorized."
Rainsy's stint at the pagoda
ended when Tep Vong, the head of the Mohannikay sect, pressured the monks to ask
him to leave. He continued his hunger strike at his party headquarters, and said
he believed his message had been heard.
"If the ASEAN leaders know that
there are Cambodians who suffer and many who have reservations about the summit,
then I have achieved my aim," he said.