Civil society groups mull boycotting dialogue with ASEAN leaders

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (MindaNews/30 Marcj) – Southeast Asia’s independent civil society groups are poised to proceed with their planned boycott of a dialogue with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) heads of states here next week to protest Cambodia’s intervention in the selection process for country representatives to the meeting.

Civil society leaders attending the three-day ASEAN Civil Society Conference and the ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) 2012 here reiterated such move as they decried the Cambodian government’s move.

The meeting is among the sidelights of next week’s 20th summit of ASEAN leaders and heads of states.

They described Cambodia’s actions as an “effort to stifle the real voices of the people” within the 10-nation regional bloc.

“ASEAN leaders deserve to hear the real voices of the people, especially those of communities affected by government policies such as land and mining concessions. They must take these voices seriously and act urgently to address the many issues that are affecting millions of lives in Southeast Asia,” said Thida Khus, director of Cambodia’s Silaka and member of the ACSC/APF steering committee.

The 8th edition of the ACSC/APF, which is considered as the biggest gathering of independent civil society organizations in Southeast Asia, formally opened at the Lucky Star Hotel here on Thursday despite alleged efforts by the Cambodian government to block the holding of the event.

Civil society groups had been holding the ACSC/APF since 2005 as a venue for discussions on issues and concerns affecting various sectors as well as for the nomination and selection of country representatives to the interface dialogue with the region’s leaders.

But on Wednesday, a separate three-day gathering of supposed civil society groups in the region apparently backed by the Cambodian government opened at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall here.

Organizers, which claimed support from various civil society and non-government groups across the region, also dubbed the event ACSC/APF 2012 and carried its official logo.

Khus said the separate civil society gathering was clearly meant to undermine the “real convergence of ASEAN civil society” and take control over the proceedings of the upcoming ASEAN leaders-civil
society interface dialogue.

She said they have been coordinating since January with Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the holding of the ACSC/APF but the latter allegedly refused to acknowledge them.

They invited Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong and officials from the Ministry of Interior to address the ACSC/APF opening ceremonies on Thursday but none came, she said.

As in the past gatherings, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan was invited anew by the organizers to address the gathering and hold a dialogue with them but they were so far informed that he could not come due to his “busy schedule,” Thai representative Chalida Tajaroensah told MindaNews.

She said they were still trying to reach out with any one of the four ASEAN deputy secretary generals to attend the closing ceremonies on Saturday.

Sinapan Samydorai, Singapore’s steering committee representative, claimed that the Cambodian government had even tried to “disrupt and interrupt” the holding of this year’s ACSC/APF.

He said local organizers initially promised a week ago by Cambodian officials that a permit would be issued for the event but it did not release them until noon on Wednesday, delaying their preparations at the venue.

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, who represents Indonesia in the ACSC/APF steering committee, said they were initially barred by the management of the Lucky Star Hotel to enter the venue hours before it opened on Thursday supposedly due to the lack of proper clearance from Cambodia’s interior ministry.

She said they were later allowed to proceed with their preparations at the venue following negotiations made by Cambodian civil society leaders.

Wahyuningrum said Cambodia’s actions shows that “ASEAN member-states are not fully committed to make it a people-oriented grouping as outlined in its charter.”

She pointed out that ASEAN was supposed to have adopted the dialogue interface with the civil society as one of the mechanisms of the socio-cultural pillar of the ASEAN Charter, which was formally adopted in late 2009.

“It now appears that they’re back to their old ways…of being a centric-oriented organization. Everything about ASEAN is just really about governments and not about its people,” Yuyun said in a press conference.

“Their actions were different from what was outlined in the ASEAN Charter. They don’t really acknowledge the genuine voice of the people,” she added.

For her part, Philippine representative Aurora Corazon Parong described Cambodia’s interventions as “big for the ASEAN people and the entire community.”

“This (gathering) is no doubt the real representation of the ASEAN civil society and the people,” she said.

Parong, who is also the Amnesty International-Philippines director, said the Philippines civil society bloc has no idea yet if they would be tapped for the dialogue with the ASEAN leaders next week.

“We will be meeting later on to decide among ourselves what actions to take regarding the dialogue,” she said.

But she said personnel from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) called up the office of Freedom From Debt Coalition a week ago asking for the name of the country’s civil society representative to the

The DFA’s move was contrary to Cambodia’s request to its ASEAN colleagues to disregard the ACSC/APF’s nomination and selection process of representatives for the dialogue.

“In fairness to the DFA, they did not push us to attend the other ACSC/APF backed by Cambodia. No organization from the Philippines also decided to go there,” Parong added.

Meantime, organizers of the Cambodia-supported ACSC/APF claimed they were the “real voice” of the ASEAN civil society and would bring the “real concerns of the people” to the upcoming dialogue.

Khieu Vicheanon, deputy director of the Cambodia-ASEAN Centre for Human Rights Development, said they were given clearance by the ASEAN Secretariat through Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to select the country representatives for the dialogue.

He claimed their own version of the civil society gathering has the support of various organizations in the region except for Brunei Darrusalam.

But he failed to name any representative from the Philippines when asked by Filipino reporters.

The gathering, which was attended by only around 200 people and mostly Cambodian university students, laid out a program that were dominated by Cambodian speakers.

On the other hand, the ACSC/APF organized by independent civil society groups was joined by around 1,200 people representing 300 organizations across the region. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)