Almost two weeks after his reelection, U.S. President Barack Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Cambodia for the East Asian Summit. It's a visit that has sent Cambodia in a tizzy; activists are planning to make use of the event to attract international attention to their causes, and the government is scrambling to get them out of the way.
A few months ago I interviewed Ee Sarom and Tep Vanny, activists involved in the land rights dispute over Boeung Kak Lake in the middle of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Once a lush 90-hectare lake around which about 4,000 families lived their lives, the lake was sold to private developer Shukaku Inc. in 2007, and has since been filled in with sand, turning into a dry, brown expanse. Homes have been destroyed and families evicted, relocated with very little compensation to more remote areas. Only 700 families remain in the area.
Refusing to back down, residents like Tep Vanny have organised themselves to protest the evictions. And with Obama arriving in Southeast Asia, they intend to capitalise on the international attention to pressure their government to deal with land rights, not just with Boeung Kak Lake, but with multiple land disputes all over the country. With 50 percent of the country's budget coming from international funding, censure from the global community could have a very real impact.
The Cambodian government is on edge in the run-up to such an important weekend: not only is Obama visiting on Monday for the East Asia Summit, members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also meeting on Sunday. Activists report that the authorities in Phnom Penh are going into overdrive. Grassroots events have been disrupted and venues cancelled. Eight Cambodians protesting land disputes around the airport have been arrested for displaying "SOS Obama" signs on their homes. Land rights protesters like Tim Sokmany and Yorm Bopha are still in pre-trial detention on charges they claim were made up to curb their activities.
Ironically, it is likely that the ASEAN countries will adopt the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights at their meeting.
It is expected that Obama will deal with the South China Sea disputes ongoing between China and Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. But what about the disputes going on right outside the Summit venue? In the game of global politics, will anyone remember the Cambodians fighting for their homes?