CIVIL-society groups say they fear that leaders from Cambodia and other ASEAN countries might opt not to engage with them at this week’s summit in Thailand.
On Sunday, 500 civil-society members from throughout Southeast Asia met for a three-day conference in Cha-Am, Thailand, near Hua Hin. The gathering, the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF), comes in advance of an official ASEAN meeting scheduled for Friday between government officials and civil society representatives.
In February, controversy emerged at the previous ASEAN summit in Cha-Am when Prime Minister Hun Sen and Myanmar leader Thein Sein reportedly refused to attend a meeting between civil-society representatives and ASEAN leaders if activists from their countries were present.
Pen Somony, a programme coordinator for the Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society, and Khin Ohmar, a rights activist from Myanmar, were both forced to sit out the meeting, instead holding talks with Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.
As for the planned meeting between civil-society representatives and ASEAN leaders scheduled for Friday, APF media coordinator Debbie Stothard said Monday that there was “talk that some governments may opt not to participate”.
Stothard noted that, aside from one representative from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, senior officials from ASEAN nations had declined to attend the APF over the past two days, cancelling “one by one at the last minute”.
A press release issued Sunday by the APF lamented the effect these sudden cancellations had had on the gathering. “Instead of a program that was designed to include meaningful dialogue between ASEAN governments and civil-society organisations, the opening plenary [of the APF] became a platform for criticising ASEAN’s avoidance of civil-society organisations,” the statement said.
Nay Vanda, head of the advocacy section for the local rights group Adhoc, was selected by the APF on Sunday to be Cambodia’s civil-society representative at the Friday meeting with ASEAN leaders.
Meetings in doubt
Adhoc President Thun Saray said Monday, however, that he was not yet sure whether Nay Vanda would have the chance to meet with Cambodian officials.
Thailand’s The Nation newspaper reported last week that, in a pre-summit planning session, ASEAN officials had decided to make the civil society meeting optional.
These attempts at avoidance, Stothard said, are indicative of the insecurities of many ASEAN leaders.
“It’s a sign of their own weakness and lack of confidence,” she said.
“What do we have but words and solutions? Why should they be so afraid to talk to civil society?”
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment on the issue, citing the impending release of a government statement addressing the ASEAN summit.
Thun Saray said that, given the opportunity, Nay Vanda hoped to discuss migrantworker rights, human trafficking and the establishment of the ASEAN human rights body set forth in the organisation’s charter.
The Adhoc president added that with regional allies watching, the government ought to take the lead on these issues and make good on its previous rhetoric.
“Cambodia is a country that likes to announce publicly that we are a democratic country,” he said. “I think we should make the effort to show the region that we are active on this.”