The government on Sunday denied numerous media reports stating that Cambodian and Burmese officials had threatened to skip an Asean Summit meeting on human rights if Cambodian and Burmese activists were allowed to attend.
Major media outlets such as The Associated Press reported over the weekend that Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Burmese counterpart Thein Sein had threatened to walk out of the meeting with Asean civil society representatives in Hua Hin, Thailand. The Cambodian and Burmese activists, faced with this ultimatum, reportedly exited the meeting so that it could proceed.
But Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said Sunday that Cambodian officials did not seek to bar rights workers from the meeting.
“The Cambodian delegation didn’t prevent any civil society organization from participating,” Hor Namhong told reporters during a press conference at Phnom Penh International Airport.
Hor Namhong said the government had sent its own NGO representative, whom he did not name, to the meeting, while another Cambodian activist, Pen Somony, representing the little-known Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society, had also tried to attend on behalf of Cambodian NGOs.
Both representatives were not registered on Asean’s attendance list and were therefore prevented from joining the meeting by the summit’s organizers, Hor Namhong said.
Hor Namhong said future Asean summits would need certain registration procedures for civil society representatives, otherwise there could be “hundreds or thousands” of NGO activists and Asean delegations would have to spend “days and weeks” to meet them.
Pen Somony, a program coordinator of Cambodia Volunteers for Civil Society, was prevented from joining the 30-minute meeting, but the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met him and Burmese representative Khin Ohnmar afterward, according to a news release from the Asean People’s Forum.
The forum, which had organized the meeting with Asean leaders, consists of a network of NGOs from across the Asean region, according to its website.
Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun, who is the current chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Action Committee, said by telephone that the incident was bad for Cambodia’s image.
“This is not good for Cambodia’s reputation. It is in the same position as Burma,” he said.
CHRAC is a coalition of 21 of Cambodia’s most prominent rights groups, but Sok Sam Oeun said that he was unfamiliar with Pen Somony or his organization.
Political NGO Comfrel Director Koul Panha said the incident “shows the attitude of our government…it is not ready to promote and protect human rights and the participation of civil society.”
He said that he too was unfamiliar with Pen Somony and his organization. Even so, he added, it was hard to understand why the government could make this decision and potentially damage Cambodia’s reputation.
SRP President Sam Rainsy said he “deplored the fact that the Cambodian government representatives behaved like the Burmese leaders,” adding that the government had acted as if “human rights activists are their enemy.”
Sam Rainsy said he too did not know Pen Somony, but added that he thought the man must be respected by participating NGOs, as he was chosen to represent them.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)