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Access to Justice

Equality in the balance as Obama visits South East Asia

By Suzanne Keatinge, 15 November 2012

The streets of Yangon and Phnom Penh are being hastily cleaned up – and blocked off – as the governments of Myanmar and Cambodia prepare to welcome US President Barack Obama on his first official visit to the region.  He is on his way to the ASEAN Summit hosted by the Cambodian Government on 19 to 20 November, but will also drop into Yangon to see for himself how real the reforms are in this emerging economy.

There is little doubt that Obama’s visit to the region is about politics, security and business.  In his first term of office, he made it clear that Asia is of new strategic priority to the US.

What he won’t have time to see are the more powerful underlying risks to growth and stability in this region.  The growing inequality between rich and poor, and between men and women, for example.  The winner-takes-all politics that continues to sideline the right to freedom of expression and association.  And a growth model based on extracting natural resources with scant regard for the effects on the environment, or the communities that the land and water supports.

That’s not to ignore the many positive signs in a region that has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years.  The rate of change itself, both economic and social, has, arguably, been so rapid that it has gathered a momentum of its own that will be hard to stop.  

The confidence and ambition of women, is one obvious feature of this Asian success story.  For example, it’s not only the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi as a newly elected Parliamentary representative that is a symbol of hope in Myanmar.  The growing confidence of civil society in the country, particularly women, as they speak out and demand resources, training and policy reform, is clear to see.  Women’s networks and groups are springing up to demand that development reaches their families and communities after years of neglect.

Similarly in Cambodia, women are making a mark. A recent article in Cambodia’s Asia Life magazine (Nov 2012) profiled ambitious young women ‘breaking barriers’ through their entrepreneurship and fighting for their rights.  “I want to be Prime Ministers’ declares Chea Chanreaksa, a 19 year-old agriculture student from rural Siem Reap.  Traditional cultural norms and stereotypes are being challenged through education, art, and business, as well as raising awareness among men by local NGOs, on the importance of gender equality.  One important knock-on effect is that domestic violence is on the decline, even if it still remains high in a country where 25% of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

What’s needed now to sustain some of these gains is a renewed political commitment towards active citizenship, seeing women as agents of change, and underlining the importance of human rights.  Policy decisions are needed to make these the vehicles to promote sustainable growth – something Mr Obama should know all about if his US election campaign is to be believed.

However, a snapshot of the worsening human rights situation in Cambodia tells also of the darker clouds on the horizon. In a letter to President Obama shortly after his re-election, on 31 October, 12 Senior US Lawmakers, including a Senator, and former presidential candidate John McCain, warned that keeping silent on Cambodia’s human right record, in particular, would play into China’s hands.

Recent incidents include the sentencing of 71 year old, Mam Sonando, Director and Owner of the FM station 105 (Beehive Radio), one of the few independent media outlets in Cambodia, on the grounds of insurrection.

The European Parliament has stated similar concerns in its motion on 23 October, where it highlighted in particular the growing “intolerance towards the exercise of freedom of expression in criticising corruption, impunity and land grabbing.”  It urged the Cambodian Government to cease all forced evictions “until a transparent and accountable legal framework and relevant policies are in place to ensure that evictions are conducted only in accordance with international human rights law”.

It comes too late for the 14 year old girl who was killed in May, in the process of a forced eviction of 200 families by police and military police officers in Pro Ma village.  Or for the environmental activist, Mr Chu Wutty, who was shot and killed in an incident in Koh Kong in April. Or for a journalist, Mr Hang Serie Oudom, who had reported widely on illegal logging in Ratanakiri, but was then found murdered in his car in September.

Land, and the exploitation of natural resources, is at the heart of Cambodia and Myanmar’s struggle. Cambodia is said to be in “the grips of a prolonged land grabbing crisis, that has seen over 2.1 million hectares of land – roughly the total area of Wales – transferred mostly from subsistence farmers into the hands of industrial agriculture firms”, according to LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights.  It also says, “an estimated 400,000 people have been affected by land disputes since 2003, and government violence against land-grabbing victims is at an all-time high”. There are similar forecasts for Myanmar where smallholder farmers are increasingly vulnerable as the country opens up to foreign and domestic investment.

Ethnic conflict is also a dangerous undercurrent that is threatening stability in the region.  In Myanmar for example, the ethnic conflict in Kachin State continues to worsen since the fragile ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) broke down in June 2011.  Over 75,000 civilians have been displaced and are in need of food, health and sanitation every day.  More recently, sectarian violence in Rakhine State, has led to the deaths of 140 people, and the displacement of  over 110,000 civilians, mostly stateless Rohingya’s, a Muslim minority in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

Of course there are no silver bullets to these complex problems.  But unless President Obama is willing to put political pressure on Asian politicians, and others, to build inclusive societies, promote respect for freedom of speech and association, respect for gender equality, then the excitement that his visit has generated in the region will be short-lived. This region can’t afford a ‘business as usual approach,’ if peace and prosperity are to be sustained.

Written by Trócaire staff member Suzanne Keatinge, who is living with her family in Phnom Penh.

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