‘I Am Not Holding My Breath’ After Asean Summit, Human Rights Defenders Say

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hands over the Asean chairmanship gavel to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Asean Summit's closing ceremony in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. (Cindy Liu/Reuters)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hands over the Asean chairmanship gavel to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Asean Summit's closing ceremony in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. (Cindy Liu/Reuters)
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CORRECTED, Nov. 15—The Asean Summit in Phnom Penh ended Sunday after 16 summits, 70 new declarations, one presidential gaffe and at least four clogged toilets, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel fees and catering.

Ukraine’s foreign minister took the signing of a partnership with Asean, after years of planning, as a show of support for his nation under siege. Timor-Leste was brought into the bloc in spirit but must wait to add its voice to political discussions. Prime Minister Hun Sen received pledges for more than $50 million in aid packages from Japan and more flights to the Philippines. 

Apsara dancers performed. Tom yum and laab were served on silver trays. Condensation from air conditioners dripped from the ceiling.  

Watching from outside the Sokha Hotel, activists and human rights defenders in Cambodia and Myanmar shrugged: As usual, they said, it was doubtful the yearly summit would lead to any material change for their situations.

“I don’t see any substantial commitments or actions from ASEAN states that will address key challenges facing the region and its member states,” said Pech Pisey, Cambodia’s director for anti-corruption group Transparency International. “It falls short of highlighting fundamental issues which are the real threats to ASEAN’s unity and its more than 680 million people.”

Among those challenges include the international human trafficking rings that have been primarily operating out of Cambodia and luring thousands of victims from China, Vietnam and Thailand; the Myanmar coup that has displaced more than 1 million people and killed at least 5,000 more, and deep-seated corruption across much of the region.

To be sure, Asean member states operate under a “non-interference principle,” a vague term that refers to Southeast Asian nations prizing state sovereignty. In that context, it is “unrealistic to expect anything concrete,” Pisey added.

That hasn’t stopped some from hoping otherwise. All week, various protesters in Cambodia tried to catch the eyes of the American delegation, including U.S. President Joe Biden, who arrived Saturday morning before jetting off to Indonesia to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

During his opening remarks, Biden mistakenly referred to Cambodia as “Colombia” before a speech in which he pledged to “tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate change to health security; defend against the significant threats of rules-based order … and to build an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.”

In a meeting with Hun Sen, he reportedly “raised concerns” over Ream Naval Base — a source of tension as China deepens its influence in the region — and urged Hun Sen to release Cambodians, including Khmer American lawyer Seng Chan Theary, who have been imprisoned as part of a mass trial on trumped-up charges, per the White House.

“I am not holding my breath,” said Seng Mardi, a Cambodian opposition politician and Chan Theary’s brother. “Biden has done his part, now we wait for Hun Sen’s reaction to Biden’s requests.”

“I am not hopeful,” he said.

Inside the Sokha Hotel, confusion abounded over which events were open to the public, whether and when roads might be blocked and who, exactly, was arriving when. On a Telegram channel set up by the Information Ministry and including more than 800 journalists, people complained about bad audio and Wi-Fi and tried to find press conferences. Alexey Nazarov, a field producer for the Russian state-owned news outlet Ruptly based in Berlin, said he struggled to get footage with usable audio during the summit, especially in the beginning of the event.

“The first day, it was a huge problem because they did not send anything at all, almost nothing, and after that they just sent maybe five minutes,” he said. “We got signal [initially] and then they cut off the video signal and then the audio signal as well.”

Mostly, people waited, with workers, international delegates and local merchants chatting in the ballroom foyer until security guards tensed for a world leader to pass.

The Asean Summit in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. (Fiona Kelliher/VOD)
The Asean Summit in Phnom Penh on November 13, 2022. (Fiona Kelliher/VOD)

The weekend’s other headliner was Myanmar, whose junta head Min Aung Hlaing was blocked from attending. On Friday, the bloc released a statement saying they would stop political representation in Asean “if the situation so requires” due to “little progress” in following the five-point consensus.

Yet even before meetings started, the junta’s foreign ministry warned that they would “not be bound by the outcomes of the meeting,” citing a technicality: The 10-member bloc’s decision could not be honored because one of its members, Myanmar, was not present.

In an open letter to the summit, Myanmar’s General Strike Coordination Body — representing civilian activists, students and strike committees — lauded the protests that have continued amid ongoing junta violence and called on the bloc to give up its centralized approach, reject the junta’s so-called elections and provide humanitarian aid.

“Myanmar people strongly believe that revolution is the only way to stop those atrocities, to seek justice and to build a federal democracy,” the letter added.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo told some reporters that he had proposed a 15-point plan in relation to Myanmar. Indonesia will serve as Asean chair next year. By Sunday afternoon, nothing concrete had emerged.

Correction Nov. 15A previous version of this article misreported Xi Jinping’s title; he is the president of China.

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