Protecting human rights, especially those of Cambodian migrant workers traversing borders to countries such as Malaysia, dominated discussions at yesterday’s ASEAN Peoples’ Forum, one of two competing pre-summit forums that claim to be giving a voice to Cambodians.
Amid suggestions it was government-backed and funded, the first day of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum 2012 drew more than 1,000 people to Phnom Penh’s Chaktokmok Conference Hall.
It featured a speech by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, entertainment from traditional dancers and a youth band featuring xylophones and melodicas.
Speaking at yesterday’s forum, Seng Sakda, director-general of the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, said the government would look to ASEAN as it sought to improve conditions for Cambodians travelling to other countries to work.
“The Cambodian and Malaysian governments are preparing an MoU to protect our workers, including those who travel to work as maids,” Seng Sakda said. “We hope ASEAN will help to develop a strategy to introduce MoUs faster to guarantee workers human rights, safety and good conditions.”
Om Yentieng, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee and head of the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit, said it was important for ASEAN to protect the human rights of its 500 million people.
Chak Sopheap, from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the forum was an opportunity to tell ASEAN leaders what people wanted.
“Today, we have the chance to raise many concerns and take them to the ASEAN summit,” she said.
The similarly named ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN People’s Forum begins today at the capital’s Lucky Hotel.
Both forums claim to represent civil society and aim to give Cambodians the chance to raise issues that will be discussed with ASEAN leaders at next week’s summit in Phnom Penh.
Thida Khus, a steering-committee member for the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN People’s Forum, questioned the independence of yesterday’s forum and said it did not represent civil society or the average Cambodian.
“The government has selected their own NGOs [for this forum],” she said. “We’re concerned that the issues they present are not the issues that concern people.
“They have a lot of money to invite people, including those from overseas, for free. It’s not people’s issues but more just promoting ASEAN,” she said.
Thida Khus said her forum would represent issues that affected Cambodians and people in other ASEAN states.
“We will have civil society representatives [talking about] issues that concern us and we will be making recommendations . . . we expect more than 900 people from different regions and they will pay their own way to get here,” she said.
Executive director of Positive Change in Cambodia Hoy Sochivanny, one of the organisers of yesterday’s forum, said it had been funded by the International Foundation for Arts and Culture (IFAC-Japan).
“We invited the government to the opening, but they are not behind this forum,” she said. “After workshops [today], we will collect recommendations and give them all to ASEAN.”
Sam Ravy Malyvann, one of many students who attended yesterday’s forum, was full of praise for it. “I think this is the best chance for youths to share our concerns to ASEAN.”