LGBT Report From The Peoples’ Forum In Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Ninth Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum, (ACSC/APF), was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the close of March. ASEANis an intergovernmental network formed to establish economic, socio-cultural, and political cooperation as well as regional peace amongst members. The ten member states include: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The forum, which provides civil society activists a space to engage with their respective governments, included lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) issues for the second time this year. Ging Cristobal, Asia Project Coordinator for IGLHRC attended the forum for the second time around and shares about the experience.

The Struggle Continues for LGBTIQ Rights in the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum
For LGBTIQ activists the ninth convening of the Forum was an uphill climb compared to their first engagement last year. Fewer civil society organizations and individuals participated this year, as many were protesting the process of the Cambodia organizing committee. They claimed the Cambodian committee failed to be transparent in the organizing process and did not adequately consult with the regional committee. Allegedly, this affected not only how local organizers ran the convening but also hindered civil society groups and non-governmental organizations in other ASEAN countries from seeking funds to participate in the event.

Another hurdle was that government-initiated non-government organizations didn’t attend the civil society led forum. These organizations, with cordial partnerships with governments from their countries, led a separate meeting also in Phnom Penh a day ahead of the grassroots-initiated convening,

Lastly, the deadline is fast approaching for the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to bring forward the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration at the ASEAN Plus Summit in November 2012. To ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) not be included in the final draft, Brunei, Burma and Malaysia, asserted a strong opposition to Thailand’s recommendation to include sexual identity. LGBTIQ activists must give visibility to this bleak scenario and get support from mainstream civil society organizations to push for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the final ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

The LGBTIQ Caucus Meeting

Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), a local LGBTIQ group in Phnom Penh, initiated an LGBTIQ Caucus meeting days before the opening of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum. The caucus meeting was a venue for exchange of information on strategies regarding LGBTIQ rights work between young activists from Cambodia and groups from ASEAN countries. Despite RoCK’s non-attendance of the forum out of protest, they still provided an opportunity to LGBTIQ activists from Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar-Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines attending the forum to meet, plan and strategize. I facilitated a workshop for the regional involvement of LGBTIQ activists in the forum and we came up with strategies and pertinent information for the statement released after the Sexual Orientation Gender Identity workshop.

Everyone agreed that our issues would be presented during open discussion in each workshop attended by LGBTIQ activists, particularly caucuses and workshops involving children, youth, health, migrant workers, women and the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights.

The three recommendations presented during last year’s convening were still the unanimous call by LGBTIQ activists in ASEAN countries. We decided to adhere to these recommendations and add a call for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the final ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights for our 2012 Caucus Statement. We gathered endorsements of the LGBTIQ statement from civil society organizations from both the LGBTIQ community and mainstream groups beyond those in attendance. Thirteen LGBTIQ groups signed the statement with support from international groups such as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA-Asia). The statement was also by fifteen allied groups.

The Value of Self Determination Rights: Equality, Democracy and Diversity of Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity (SOGI) in ASEAN Values (The SOGI Workshop)
The SOGI workshop was made possible by the Center for Cambodian Human Rights (CCHR) with Hem Sokly at the helm, and the co-conveners: International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Arus Pelangi and HerLounge from Indonesia, and The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment from Vietnam.

Getting to the workshop was a bit like “The Amazing Race”:  due to the absence of a detailed layout of room assignments and the logistical nightmare that the venue was not in one building, conference participants had to search for the room assignments, either using the elevator or taking a 5-minute walk under the scorching sun to another building. Nonetheless it was a lively and effective meeting.

President of the Center for Cambodian Human Rights, Ou Virak, opened the event by reiterating   support for sexual orientation and gender identity rights. Following Ou, five speakers shared how their activism emphasized the need to assert equality, democracy and pride as an LGBTIQ person living in Asia. Hem Sokly shared how LGBTIQ rights groups challenge the way culture discriminates against LGBTIQ people in Cambodia. Thilaga Sulathireh spoke of the legal struggles and continued fight for the right to association and freedom of expression brought about by the banning of Seksualiti Merdeka’s events on LGBTIQ rights in Malaysia. Yasmin Lee from the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) revealed the challenges and the success of their group in fighting for their right to be recognized as transgender women in the Philippines. Loan Vu and Teddy from ICS Center in Vietnam detailed the need for a support group like the Parent and Friends of Lesbian and Gay people in Vietnam (PFLAG) and how it can be replicated in other ASEAN countries. Lastly, Aung Myo Min from Human Rights Education Institute of Burma presented the realistic scenario of SOGI in relation to the Asian Human rights Declaration and the workshop theme – that the ASEAN values in the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights will always be weak and incomplete if issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are denied their rightful place in the declaration.

Press Conferences
After the SOGI workshop we took part in two press conferences – the first with representatives from other workshops in the forum. Vien Tanjung of HerLounge from Indonesia presented the four recommendations from the SOGI workshop. The second press conference focused solely on Sexual Orientation Gender Identity.  With Vien Tanjung and King Oey of Arus Pelangi from Indonesia and Yasmin Lee from the Philippines I introduced the demand for the inclusion of SOGI in the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights. The other three speakers then presented the SOGI statement. It was teamwork at its finest since the media was unaware that it was an impromptu effort on our part while we were waiting for other LGBTIQ activists to arrive.

An Inclusive Drafting Committee
Another strategy that was effective following last years’ involvement in the forum was the need to have an LGBTIQ activist on the Drafting Committee of the conference to ensure that issues concerning SOGI and LGBTIQ rights be retained. King Oey from Indonesia and Ryan Sylverio proved to be experts on this as they managed to negotiate and make sure that this goal was achieved.

LGBTIQ presence in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum was a success! The momentum and visibility of SOGI rights were maintained and strengthened by the increased number of allies from mainstream civil society organizations who clearly see LGBT rights as human rights. This growing alliance will be important in the months ahead.

Realistically, there are strong efforts from countries such as Burma, Malaysia and Brunei to make sure SOGI will not be in the final declaration. But as I’ve stated publicly:  “We may not be successful in the inclusion of SOGI in the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights but we want to make sure that SOGI is in the hearts and minds of every activist. We want to be sure that in all programs and advocacies you do, you make SOGI a part of it. Then we can say we did more than simply have SOGI on paper.”

Useful Terms:
ASEAN Association of Southeast Asian Nations
ACSC ASEAN Civil Society Conference
ACSC/APF Joint annual convening
AHRD ASEAN Human Rights Declaration
APF ASEAN Peoples’ Forum
CCHR Center for Cambodian Human Rights in Vietnam
IGLHRC International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
iSEE Institute for the Studies of Society, Economy and Environment in Vietnam
ICS ICS CENTER - Connecting and Sharing Information
LGBTIQ Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer (frequently used in South East Asia)
RoCk Formal, unregistered LGBTIQ group in Cambodia
Seksualiti Merdeka Malaysian Sexuality Festival (Pride event)
SOGI Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity (common in UN parlance)