As members of the Association of South Eastern Nations (ASEAN) convened in Sydney, Australia over the weekend of March 17 to discuss issues of counterterrorism and commercial trade, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the special summit to protest against a recent crop of human rights abuses throughout Southeast Asia.
Ignoring Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s earlier threat to “beat” anyone who tried to burn his likeness, approximately 300 members of the Cambodian-Australian community rallied together in Sydney’s Hyde Park on March 16. They urged Sen’s government to respect human rights and abide by democratic principles.
With the general elections in July 2018 approaching, Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have engaged in a heavy crackdown on their political oppositions, especially the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
In September 2017, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested for treason, but many national and international observers have questioned the legitimacy of these allegations, suggesting that they could be politically motivated.
At the rally, demonstrators held up signs calling for the release of Kem Sokha and other political prisoners. Led by a group of Buddhist monks chanting prayers, they also held a moment of silence to commemorate political commentator Kem Ley and other suspected victims of political assassination.
On Saturday, activists from various Southeast Asian communities organized another demonstration at the Sydney Town Hall to demand an end to authoritarianism, violence, and persecution in these countries and to show solidarity for one another.
Davy Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian protester, said: “We are here to protest issues that are happening in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Rohingya – you name it, we are here to send a clear voice to these governments that you do not mistreat human rights.”
At the conclusion of the summit, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull identified the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar as one of the issues that was discussed by the delegates “at considerable length.”
Although Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s Prime Minister and ASEAN’s current chairman, stated that the ASEAN could not “force an outcome” in the situation, he still affirmed the organization’s commitment to seeking out a solution, including providing ‘“humanitarian assistance so that the affected communities can rebuild their lives.”