The human rights struggle in Cambodia is still no holiday
As the ASEAN juggernaut plunges into town, Phnom Penh’s elite are smiling broadly, puffing out their chests and standing tall on the international diplomatic stage. Everyone can feel the eyes of Australasia – and the world – focusing on the small nation of Cambodia.
But some of those eyes are peering into Cambodia’s more vulnerable diplomatic corners and the human rights abuses that are rife in this country of 15 million people.
Cambodia still bears the scars of arguably the most horrific human rights abuses of the twentieth century. Millions still live with the legacy of the systematic extermination inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s.
You might think that after those atrocities, no leader of this nation could ever tolerate the faintest whiff of a human rights violation. But unfortunately Cambodia has more than its fair share of modern shames.
The international community has taken an interest in the 20 year jail sentence recently doled out to outspoken radio station owner Mam Sonando on trumped up ‘incitement’ charges.
There’s also the continuing exile of Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was convicted of spreading ‘disinformation’ two years ago. The government, headed by Asia’s longest serving leader Hun Sen, has said Rainsy will be jailed if he returns, despite July’s elections drawing near.
And then there are the forced evictions of thousands of Cambodians. Their long-held family land is being compulsorily acquired for lucrative private developments.
At locations across the city, hard working families are turfed out of their homes without so much as a dollar of compensation or a new place to stay. These families are left to rear their children beneath bridges and carve out a sorry existence in whatever squalor they can find.
The ensuing protests have turned deadly and seen dozens jailed heaping misery upon misery.
These are just a few of the issues fuelling the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly. A collection of about 70 civil rights groups across South East Asia that have banded together to try to send a message to the powers now converging on Phnom Penh.
With a heavy police presence looking on, more than two thousand mainly Cambodians gathered at Freedom Park to announce their dissent and suggestions for change.
Their participation was enthusiastic but peaceful. Most sat cross-legged on the hot, paved ground listening, singing and echoing protest chants.
The demonstration’s location – Freedom Park – is in itself a facetiously named abuse.
‘Freedom Park’ is a largely concealed concrete space amid a construction zone allocated by the government for public protests. This is where citizens must voice their controlled concern – and nowhere else. Of course ample notice must be given to authorities of any booking. And any limited feeling of freedom isn’t really helped by the uniformed officers who turn up to keep an eye on things.
Officers even crowd around me as I interview a protest organiser, but in a testament to his passion and bravery, the young man continues speaking frankly into my microphone. He’s probably aware the officers don’t speak English and can’t actually determine if what we are saying is problematic, but I admire his fortitude nonetheless.
The demonstration on the first official ASEAN day is the culmination of workshops held by the Grassroots group, encouraging ordinary citizens to voice their concerns on matters such as urban land rights, freedom of expression, human rights, environmental degradation, agricultural issues, women’s rights, child abuse and employment conditions.
But even running these workshops was a challenge. The employment rights group spokesman tells the crowd how they’d booked a meeting room only to have the building owner intentionally cut the power when the workshop began. When asked about this, the owner reportedly said he hadn’t been pressured by the government, but just thought it a better idea not to be seen to be providing support to dissenters.
Notwithstanding the hurdles, the two thousand people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds patiently listened to representatives read out lists of demands for action on the pressing human rights concerns facing their nation.
It’s yet to be seen if ASEAN leaders take any notice of the work the group has done or the very constructive and practical ideas it puts forward. Many leaders will probably be completely unaware of the group’s existence. They certainly won’t see them anywhere near the well-protected meeting places and guarded VIPs.
But Cambodians are hopeful that with the eyes of the world glancing in their direction for once, just maybe, things might get a little better.
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