AIDS Boat Participants Claim Discrimination

Rowers joining the “Eisei Sen­chey Fighting AIDS” boat during the Water Festival races cried foul on Thursday, saying that the event’s organizing commission discriminated against the HIV-positive crew by stifling their AIDS-awareness message.

The boat’s organizer, Sia Phear­um, a UN Volunteers worker based at the National AIDS Au­thority, said the Permanent Or­ganizing Commission for Na­tional and International Ceremonies had announced the complete name of the boat on Tuesday, but on Wed­nesday and Thursday omitted “Fighting AIDS” from the name.

He said he was informed that the commission had decided to censor the name for fears that the mention of AIDS could affect Cambodia’s tourism industry.

“This is a kind of discrimination. Boat rowers were discouraged,” Sia Phearum said.

He said 45 HIV-positive rowers had joined the races to raise awareness and fight stigmas associated with the disease. The boat received support from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and Medecins Du Monde.

The team was enthusiastic on Tuesday, but after the ban placed on their boat’s name many wanted to stop rowing in protest, Sia Phearum said.

Chea Sokhom, deputy secretary-general of the Organizing Commission, said the move followed a ban on AIDS-awareness advertising during boat racing hours.

Minister of the Royal Palace Kong Sam Ol announced the prohibition on Monday, following an inter-ministerial meeting before the Water Festival.

“We don’t discriminate, but we respect the spirit of the meeting,” Chea Sokhom said.

He noted that the boat races broadcast on TVK or on the radio could be viewed in more than 100 countries.

“Tourists will think that Cambodia has many AIDS cases,” he said.

Boat captain Ti Pheap, 39, said his group was appealing to King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene.

“We want the government and the King to support us,” he said.

On Tuesday, King Norodom Si­hamoni donated 66 kramas and $25 to the team, while Senate Pre­sident Chea Sim also donated $25.

Still, crewmember Keo Chantha, 40, said he was disenchanted by their treatment.

“We have lost motivation and strength,” he said.

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