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A lesbian couple joins a gay pride event in Phnom Penh in May 2013
A lesbian couple joins a gay pride event in Phnom Penh in May 2013. Vietnam has recently legalised same-sex marriages. Scott Howes

VN wedding bells spark hope

Activists working on LGBT rights issues in Cambodia are optimistic that Vietnam’s historic decision to repeal its ban on gay marriage will have a positive influence on their own efforts to improve the quality of life for the community here.

In the latest easing of restrictions for the LGBT community in Vietnam, the government axed rules that prohibited “marriage between people of the same sex” in a law that took effect on New Year’s Day, though same-sex marriages are still not legally recognised, Bloomberg reported. The repeal of the ban follows a move in 2013, when Vietnam ended the practice of leveling fines on homosexual weddings.

Gay marriage is illegal in Cambodia, with the constitution stating that it must be between “one husband and one wife”. But that hasn’t stopped local wedding ceremonies from taking place, and in general, activists say the mindset in Cambodia is slowly changing for the better. Since 2009, Pride Week activities have been held annually, while more LGBT-friendly businesses are opening up in Phnom Penh. In 2011, the Ministry of Tourism declared Siem Reap gay-friendly.

The news out of Vietnam has inspired hope that change could also be in the works for Cambodians, even if the issue does not seem to be a priority for lawmakers.

Sidara Nuon, who works on the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity project at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that because Vietnam is a “leading country” in Southeast Asia, “Cambodia will affected by this movement”.

Nuon said Cambodia could be influenced by nearby countries, citing Vietnam and Thailand, specifically. Thailand has drafted a new marriage law to address same-sex rights, but the military coup in May has stalled its implementation. Nuon said that Cambodian NGOs and activists will attempt to apply the Vietnamese changes within a “Cambodia context”.

Rainbow Community Kampuchea’s Collette O’Regan said she thinks the development creates a precedent that the government may be inclined to follow when the time comes.

“I imagine it would require a significant campaign here in order to really convince policymakers that this is a very important issue for a significant number of Cambodian citizens and which would therefore make a very big positive difference to their lives, as well as bring kudos to the [government],” she said. “The hoped-for positive impact on pink tourism would also very much apply here, too, I imagine.”

Activist Srurn Sorn said that while he was aware of the new legislative climate in Vietnam and Thailand, there are other laws that should be tackled before taking on the marriage problem. “We have our priority plan,” he said, adding that there was no need to rush things, and that social protections should take priority.

While Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Cambodians not to discriminate against gay people in a 2012 speech, the government has not made LGBT rights an urgent priority.

Cheam Yeap, a Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker, said in 2010 that the Cambodian custom is for men to marry women. However, he left the door open for eventual changes. “The government must focus on developing the country before it can start thinking about [same-sex marriage] laws,” he said.

Neither Yeap nor Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan could be reached yesterday. National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun said he was unavailable to speak.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Cambodia could, ironically, learn from its eastern neighbour.

“I never thought I would ever say this, but Cambodia should take a human rights cue from Vietnam – and move to recognise the right to same-sex marriage and non-discrimination towards LGBT persons in all aspects of law and regulation.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BLOOMBERG

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