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Muffled voices of ASEAN dissent

Muffled voices of ASEAN dissent

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.

Discussions

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

and poverty.

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.

"This is

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

well."

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.

"We

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."

Opposition leader

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.

"I consider

[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.

"[One

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.

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