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Government bans private border talks

Lawmakers and constitutional experts have criticized a government decision to ban

a scheduled June 20 conference organized by the French-based Cambodian Border Committee

(CBC) as a violation of constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

The conference, scheduled to be held at the Cambodiana Hotel, was banned by the Council

of Ministers on the basis that its agenda might cause neighboring countries to "confuse"

the participants' opinions with that of the government.

"I think this conference...could create confusion between neighboring countries

and our gov-ernment's position [on disputed borders with Thailand and Vietnam],"

said Khieu Kanharith, MoI Secretary of State. "We reserve this job for the government."

The CBC had organized the conference - which included participants from the US, Canada

and Sweden as well as representatives of the Student Movement for Democracy (SMD)

- to discuss the status of Cambodia's territorial integrity based on international

accords embodied in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement.

"We have no intention to go against the government or any political party because

we are unaffiliated with a political party," said CBC President Sean Pengse.

The conference ban was criticized by Say Bory of the Constitutional Council as a

possible violation of Cambodia's constitution.

"I don't know how [the government] could legally ban a private seminar... it

makes it appear that Cambodia has no freedom of expression," Bory said. "I

think that the border issue should not be kept secret but is an obligation for all

Khmer to keep themselves informed about."

Bory's concerns were echoed by Funcinpec legislator Nan Sy, who along with several

opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers had planned to attend the conference.

"I think that the joint seminar would be important in the interests of the nation

[due to] the Khmer territory which is being intruded upon by Vietnamese and Thais,"

Sy said.

Pengse said the government ban went against support expressed by King Norodom Sihanouk

for the CBC's goals during a June 19 Royal audience and put in question freedom of

expression in Cambodia. The King sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen on June

11 requesting he investigate reports of border encroachment by Thai and Vietnamese

fishermen.

"I cannot comment about the progress of democracy in Cambodia, but in France

the people who form an association have the freedom to rent a hotel room for a free

discussion," Pengse said.

Um Sam An, SMD General Secretary, accused the government of merely "paying lip

service" to the issue of resolving border disputes with Vietnam and Thailand.

The conference ban follows the June 12 release of a report by the newly-formed Khmer

Borders Protection Organization (KPBO) which documented extensive border violations

by Thai and Vietnamese fishermen in around the islands of Koh Pring, Koh Tang and

Koh Ses.

"Our four days of research revealed that an estimated 100-500 tons of fish are

illegally caught [by Thai and Vietnamese fishermen] every day and imported to Thailand

and Vietnam," said KBPO President Buth Rasmei Kongkea.

Touch Seang Tana, a fisheries expert in the Council of Ministers, confirmed that

Vietnamese and Thai fishing boats were active in the areas outlined by KBPO, but

attributed it to a Nov, 2000 policy allowing fisheries officials to tax foreign fishing

boats in Cambodian waters.

Var Kim Hong, Chairman of National Committee for Border Issues in the Council of

Ministers denied KBPO's allegations, saying he had yet to hear any similar reports

from Cambodian navy officials.

"I have no comment because I haven't received any report from the local authorities,"

said Kim Hong.

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