In One City, A Tale of Two Peoples’ Forums

Government officials did not, and Lao students could not, attend yesterday’s Asean Peoples’ Forum in Phnom Penh where more than 1,500 members of civil society groups discussed the region’s most pressing issues, including human rights, poverty, land usurping and domestic violence. The three-day forum, which is not officially recognized by Cambodia or other Asean governments, found itself competing yesterday with a mirror three-day “Asean people’s forum” in Chaktomuk conference hall – which was organized, supported and attended by senior government officials.

The dueling people’s forums in Phnom Penh this week underlined the deep divide between the region’s civil society organizations; on one side the organizations that are critical of their governments, and on the other state-sponsored organizations that were showcased this week ahead of the Asean Summit.

Attendants and participants of yesterday’s non-government aligned forum, and representing organizations from Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, spoke about the dire conditions faced by migrant workers and the pervasive government-sanctioned land grabs affecting the region’s poor.

“Land is more than an economic commodity. It is a source of livelihood, a source of power–and for smallholders and indigenous people–it is a source of their cultural identity,” said Nathaniel Don E Marquez, executive director of the Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development.

“Why would host countries give large tracts of land to foreigners when this land is needed for providing food for the entire country?” said Mr. Marquez, noting that governments in the region often have a different perception of the importance of land than the actual people on it.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Thida Khus, head of local rights NGO Silaka, spoke about freedom of association – a crucial issue in Asean, which she believed would not be as thoroughly discussed at the competing forum in Chaktomuk Conference Hall yesterday.

“I think civil society space is one of the key areas that Asean needs to secure. [To be] able to talk publicly, to have our voices heard; for us to have freedom of association and freedom of access to information,” Ms. Khus said.

“There is no need to be divided,” Ms. Khus said of the two forums, “and put all kinds of pressure on us concerning our freedom to gather and our freedom of speech.”

The forum attended by Ms. Khus and the 1,500 delegates of independent civil society groups was held at the Lucky Star Hotel in Tuol Kok district.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that the groups organizing yesterday’s “unofficial” forum were unwilling to have a partnership with the NGOs of the government-sanctioned forum.

“What we’re supposed to do is go with the official group. The unofficial group can do [it] for themselves,” said Mr. Siphan. “They have to show that they want to work together before the government can join their conference.”

On August 23, the government handpicked Hoy Sochivanny, director of Positive Change for Cambodia, and Sok Theavuth, president of the Cambodia-Asean Youth Association, two little-known organizations, to officially represent Cambodia’s civil society sector at the Asean Summit.

Independent NGOs said the government-picked representatives would not raise issues that could be considered negative at the summit.

The agenda for the first day of Wednesday’s government-sanctioned forum featured speeches from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An; Anti-Corruption Unit President Om Yentieng; deputy director of the international cooperation at the Minister of Women’s Affairs Long Sophally; and Seng Sakkada, director general of the labor department at the Labor Ministry.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace – which organized the government-sanctioned forum – downplayed the differences between the two forums.

“We are all trying to achieve the same goals and the same objectives. We share common purposes,” Mr. Vannarith said.

One group of Lao students, however, were told that the purposes of the two forums was not so common, and were told to only attend the government-friendly affair at Chaktomuk hall.

Seven Lao students were not allowed to attend yesterday’s forum due to orders from their government at the behest of the Cambodian government, said Bo Pao, a representative of local rights group Working Group for Peace.

“Our friends from Laos told us that the Cambodian government asked their a Laos minister to call them back from the Lucky Star [hotel] to go to the conference at Chaktomuk,” said Mr. Pao.

“They said it is not their government’s problem. It was asked by someone of the Cambodian government.”

A representative from the Laos Embassy said the order came from the Asean Department of Foreign Affairs in Laos.

“This forum is not the forum [the Laos government] wished for them to attend…. The Asean Department of Laos prefers them to attend the forum that started yesterday,” said the representative, referring to the Chaktomuk forum, and adding that he did not know the reasons behind the order.

Chhith Sam Ath, head of NGO Forum and co-head of the planning committee for yesterday’s independent forum, lamented the absence of the Lao visitors.

“They wanted to come with us, but due to the phone call from the embassy and the pressure from the other side, they decided to go [to the other forum],” Mr. Sam Ath said.

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