If a visiting Southeast Asian leader or dignitary had been curious enough to take a peek beyond the heavy velvet curtains of Phnom Penh’s opulent Peace Palace this week, they would have had a princely view of the site of one of Cambodia’s worst human rights violations in recent years.
Boeung Kak Lake, in the nation’s capital, was once home to about four thousand families, most of whom were evicted without proper recompense, to make way for a development company owned by a Cambodian government senator.
The lake is now a fenced-off dustbowl. It’s hard to know if the irony of the location of last week’s meeting of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would have crossed the minds of the attendees.
But for the almost 2500 journalists, cameramen and photographers who descended on Cambodia’s capital, the country’s human rights problem made for good news fodder.
A controversial regional human rights declaration was on the agenda of the summit, but the issue was also playing out on the sidelines, and materialising in unflattering headlines across the world.
Cambodia has been chair of ASEAN this year. The annual high-level summit brings together leaders from the 10 ASEAN countries, as well as those from China, Japan, Australia and Russia.
With US President Barack Obama also in attendance, the Cambodian government took no chances in making sure Phnom Penh was clean and under control for the visiting dignitaries.
In the lead-up, beggars, hawkers and street children were swept off the streets and relocated to a "training centre" on the outskirts of town.
Residents fighting eviction due to an airport expansion were arrested and jailed for painting "SOS Obama" signs on their rooftops.
Several events arranged by civil society groups on the sidelines of the summit were shut down after pressure from government officials.
Such incidents are not uncommon in Cambodia, but are rarely of more than passing interest to the foreign press.
And a local English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, is one of the only local news outlets to cover these kinds of stories daily.
The Deputy Editor Vong Sokheng, says it’s good for Cambodia to have had so many foreign reporters visiting: "Maybe it will give some exposure to the outside, to the international community… that they can hear, they know about what happens in our small country. I think that it’s good because when everything spreads out to the world and the leaders we will get the feedback from the outside world so the issue will be resolved."
Human Right’s Watch regional director Phil Robertson says it’s not surprising that human rights abuses gained some traction among foreign reporters:
"As (journalists) come in to a country they’re going to look around and see what sort of stories they can do… they don’t necessarily think very much about Cambodia, but when they came here and started looking around for a story that they wanted to do, it was the human rights problems of Cambodia that are so widespread and so very, very, very bad at this point, that it wasn’t like they just picked human rights. It was that all the issues moved back to a human rights angle.
"You look at land confiscations, you look at freedom of the press, you look at violations of freedom of assembly and freedom of association, freedom of expression. All these things continue to come back to the human rights issue. And I think that the reporters were just reflecting on what they found when they came into the country."
Human Rights Watch had itself tried to harness the media spotlight.
Just days before the summit, the campaign group released a timely report, "Tell them I want to kill them," linking senior Cambodian government officials, including the Prime Minister Hun Sen, to hundreds of extrajudicial killings.
Local rights groups, political activists and the country’s opposition party had been hoping Obama would raise what they say is Cambodia’s deteriorating human rights situation with Sen.
White House officials described the meeting of the two leaders as "tense" as Obama focussed almost entirely on the issue.
Robertson says he’s hopeful the exchange might help some individual cases, such as the 20-year jail sentence given to independent radio broadcaster Mam Sonando in October.
But he’s more sceptical about there being any long-term systemic change, and that Obama should have taken the issue further.
"We just wish that President Obama had also raised those issues publically. Because now what we’re seeing is an effort by Hun Sen’s advisors and his press spokesperson to try to spin the issue that human rights was raised but not very much, that it wasn’t very important, that President Obama was happy with the answers et cetera et cetera. The US left themselves open to that because they didn’t say publically what they said privately."
Access to the politicians and officials was a problem throughout the summit, as journalists struggled against tightly controlled photo opportunities and minimal press conferences.
In concluding his closing address, the usually loquacious Sen gave a teary apology, saying he wouldn’t be taking questions from the media, because he was too tired and emotional about last month’s death of Cambodia’s king father Norodom Sihanouk.
"You know that I’m a person who speaks lengthily and I am not afraid to respond to all types of questions even I can say that I can speak even five hours without stopping non stop. But now I’m not able to respond to your questions more than what I have reported to you.
"I also apologise that I can not control myself from shedding tears because what the king father wanted was to have a prestigious nation. Now the nation has prestige at a time when the king father has passed away."
Sen was likely to face a grilling from reporters on the many controversial issues to emerge from the meeting, including the territorial dispute over the South China Sea, and human rights.
Robertson says it was a convenient way to get out of answering some potentially tricky questions.
"Well I’m not surprised he didn’t want to take questions presumably he knows the kind of questions he would have faced especially from the international journalists who are not the same as the journalists from many of these stations or TV or radio stations in Cambodia and you know, yeah I’m not surprised he ducked it."
While the ASEAN chairmanship has been an opportunity for Cambodia to forge a reputation as an important regional player, the experience has also helped shine a light on the country’s problems.
The government would have rarely faced that level of media scrutiny, with almost all of the local media either government-owned or influenced.
A recent case study by BBC Media Action found Cambodia is facing "real obstacles" to achieving a genuine free press, with the government "actively shutting down the space" for democratic discussion.
The report found that criticism of the government was an "Increasingly risky venture" with government critics jailed, exiled (including the country’s opposition party leader Sam Rainsy), threatened or killed.
Whether the recent foreign media spotlight on Cambodia will have any lasting effect, and whether the government will heed President Obama’s harsh words, remains to be seen.
But Cambodia’s Minister of Information, Khieu Kanahrith, says he’s not concerned about negative reports in the foreign press. He says journalists can report what they see, and people can make up their own minds.
"You know Cambodia, we have two images, the real image and the image from the press, from the conception of some people… To remove some preconceptions sometimes it’s hard, and it’s a long way, but we hope that with an objective analysis and by seeing by themselves, can have some different perceptions in the future."
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