By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
The killing of a leading environmental activist in Cambodia this week highlights the plight of civil society not only in the country, but in Southeast Asia where authorities are still reluctant to work with civil society groups to protect human rights.
A day after green activist Chut Wuthy was shot dead Thursday while leading journalists to a suspected illegal logging site in a remote region in Cambodia, the Malaysian government slapped a ban at the last minute on a mammoth rally by civil society groups demanding key electoral reforms.
Earlier in the week, in a show of force, several thousand security officers in Vietnam moved in at the break of dawn to repossess land from farmers in the outskirts of the capital, Hanoi, as video clips by citizen journalists showed members of civil society beaten, kicked, and punched by uniformed and plain clothed policemen.
Not to be left behind, Laos has ignored calls from civil society to shelve a controversial dam project on the mighty Mekong River as companies in that country and neighboring Thailand forged ahead last week with an agreement for the dam’s construction.
As Southeast Asia continues to boom economically, governments appear to be regarding civil society groups as a hindrance to quick, though not necessarily right, decision making and virtually a thorn to progress.
In countries such as Cambodia, it could even mean death for civil society activists who persist in seeking the truth, like Chut Wuthy who was gunned down while pursuing an investigation into illegal logging in a protected area.
He was shot dead on the spot under mysterious circumstances. The police said he was killed by a military officer who then took his own life on finding Chut Wuthy dead but rights groups believe there may be more than meets the eye.
Theary Seng, founding president of rights group CIVICUS, the Center for Cambodian Civic Education, called Chut Wuthy’s death a “cold blooded murder.”
“What happened [yesterday] is meant to be a chilling message to us, the concerned citizens, the rights advocates: ‘You mess with us, you pay with your life,'” she said. “However, let us send a message back: ‘We will not be bowed!'”
Chut Wuthy, who was director of the National Resources Protection Group, had been an outspoken critic of land grabbing and illegal logging, which some groups say occur under the protection of government agencies, military or top officials. He had supported other environment and land activists and had received death threats.
“This shocking incident will undoubtedly set alarm bells ringing for all activists who have worked with Wuthy,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, constantly under attack from human rights groups for what they call its dismal rights record, is viewed as anti-civil society.
The government has been trying to push through a law that grants it broad authority to make arbitrary decisions about which groups can operate and which cannot, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.
“Many officials in the Cambodian government have never accepted that civil society should operate independently or criticize their decisions,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, the director of Southeast Asia Program at Freedom House in a recent report.
Being the 2012 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia also tried to hijack an annual ASEAN civil society conference usually held simultaneously with the ASEAN summit of heads of governments.
Four workshops organized last month by the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum were forced to move from their main venue at a hotel in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
The venue owners came under pressure from the authorities and did not allow these workshops to take place, said James Gomez, an opposition politician and academic from Singapore, which together with Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam make up the 10-member ASEAN body.
Three of the workshops dealt with land rights, evictions, and environmental issues and the fourth focused on Burma’s current political and human rights situation and the challenges posed to the country’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014.
“Instead, there was confusion this year as the Cambodian government chose to recognize a government supported NGO meeting that saw participation by [groups] from the different ASEAN countries,” Gomez said.
The lesson drawn from this year’s conference is that ASEAN governments are practicing selective engagement with “approved” civil society groups, he said.
“Hence, if the Cambodian authorities pressured some of this year’s activities, it remains to be seen what will happen when Brunei and Myanmar [Burma] host the ASEAN summits in 2013 and 2014.
“Far from transforming ASEAN into a people-centered community, actions of certain ASEAN governments instead center on interrupting the voice of the ASEAN people.”
The events surrounding the ASEAN civil society conference in Cambodia cast doubts on the credibility of ASEAN’s commitment to becoming a people-oriented organization, Kelly Gerard, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Western Australia, said in a commentary.
“[T]he Cambodian government’s intervention in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference, and the support it received from other member states, belie the hollowness” of commitments by the ASEAN grouping’s efforts to build a people-oriented community and uphold human rights in Southeast Asia.
In fact, an ASEAN government commission tasked with drafting a landmark charter to protect human rights in the region has been working in isolation by not sharing information with civil society groups striving to polish the region’s human rights record.
A civil society assessment report released this week on the performance of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has been critical of the panel.
AICHR’s performance “has been disappointing and wanting, epitomized by the lack of transparency, failure to consult with civil society organizations, and no demonstrable progress in protecting and promoting human rights,” the report said.
The report was released jointly by the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights (SAPA TFAHR) and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).
It said the AICHR has “systematically failed” to make public any of the official documents adopted since its inception in 2009.
“We are extremely concerned that AICHR has not even made the draft ASEAN Human Rights Declaration available for public comments,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of FORUM-ASIA.
“It is ironic that the peoples in the region do not have the right to access a document that is supposed to protect their human rights.”