Days before the visit of US President Barack Obama to Cambodia for the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodian activists organized civil society dialogues and marches to protest human rights abuses and demand the inclusion of marginalized groups in ASEAN deliberations. The Cambodian government tried to silence activists by imposing a ban on protests, arresting 6 women land activists for drawing attention to forced evictions, and forcing host venues to cut off electricity during meetings.
These acts are appalling proof of harassment being committed by Cambodian authorities in attempt to put a lid on civil society’s dissent, especially where women’s human rights are concerned… Each of the ASEAN member countries’ record on its treatment of human rights concerns is something that we should examine. – Kunthea Chan
A memorable stamp of assertion was left at the 21st ASEAN Summit this year as feminists and women activists, along with other civil society organizations all over Southeast Asia, came together to denounce human rights violations. Through different regional activities – which included assemblies, fora, and mobilizations, these activists called on Southeast Asian government leaders to respect and value people’s human rights. Unstoppable, they also held parallel independent activities with the Southeast Asian presidents and ministers who attended the 21st ASEAN Summit where evenUS President Barack Obama was present.
At the heart of these actions are JASS women activists from Cambodia and the Philippines who participated in the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly (AGPA), ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC)/ASEAN People’s Forum (APF), and the Forum for Democracy and Cooperation (FIDC Asia-Pacific Regional Forum).
One of the main aims of the 21st ASEAN Summit was the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). Its adoption was especially crucial because it drew attention to the increasing demand for the inclusion of marginalized sectors.
“The AHRD aims to provide the basis of the human rights cooperation framework of the region. However, it’s very ironic that as the ASEAN Member States adopts the Declaration in the (upcoming) Summit, the Cambodian government has been in the forefront of continuous violations of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of the ASEAN peoples,” says Jelen Paclarin, from JASS Southeast Asia’s regional coordinating group (RCG) and who also co-convenes the Philwomen on ASEAN, an alliance of women’s groups in the Philippines pushing for greater civil society engagement in the ASEAN.
The impending adoption of AHRD was also met with resistance. On the eve of its adoption, women activists experienced different human rights violations. The AGPA was disrupted as delegates were thrown out of their lodges, had their electricity cut off, and were denied food. The ACSC and the APF were forced to relocate their venue several miles from the city while beggars were swept off the streets.
To exacerbate the situation, stricter policies were enforced concerning protests and assemblies. Poor communities involved in land disputes were banned from holding protests for the duration of the ASEAN Summit. Six Cambodian women land rights activists were arrested for spray-painting the word “SOS” on their roofs to welcome US President Barack Obama.
“In Cambodia, there have already been 1,500 urban and 2,000 rural communities demolished to give way to multinational companies for megaprojects, including agro-industry to produce food for export to their own countries. With Cambodia’s Economic Land Concession (ELC) scheme serving as the legal basis for granting land to foreign corporations, an estimated 400,000 people were evicted from their land in the first nine months of 2012 to prepare for building mega-dams and cascade dams planned along the Mekong River. In all of these areas, women’s human rights violations are rampant,” says Gert Ranjo-Libang of GABRIELA, active in the JASS network in the Philippines. Gert took part in the Forum for Democracy and Cooperation (FIDC Asia-Pacific Regional Forum) and AGPA inPhnom Penh.
Despite these disruptions, several protest actions; spearheaded by feminists and LGBT activists were held in Phnom Penh to raise various human rights concerns. Land and housing rights protests led by Cambodia’s civil society were also held.
By the end of the 21st ASEAN Summit, in spite of some progress, the fight for human rights would continue. Contradictory actions by the Cambodian government only worsened rights violations rather than protected them.
JASS Southeast Asia strongly condemns the recent spate of events in Cambodiathat not only puts women’s concerns on the periphery, but also stifles women’s voices. Pushing for women’s human rights was marred with human rights abuses. As JASS Regional Director Nani Zulminarni concludes, “We will not be reduced to acquiescence. Women comprise half of Southeast Asia. We will make our voices heard.” In the coming days, women’s dissent on these women’s human rights violations will mount.