Displacement by the authorities, human rights violations and marginalisation were the topics groups gathering across Phnom Penh intended to discuss in the lead-up to the ASEAN summit. Instead, they found themselves facing those same issues yesterday.
Two civil society consortia, as well as NGOs providing them with workshop locations and observers, said that participants were shut out of several venues across the city, while police closely monitored others.
“We are very disappointed about the way the government of Cambodia is acting as ASEAN chair,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, an organiser for the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People Forum (ACSC/APF).
ACSC/APF was forced to move its venue twice when a church and then, later, an event facility were intimidated by local authorities into retracting their agreements to host the conference, the groups said.
The CEF church could not be reached for comment, while Modern Center 5 denied the claim, saying it cancelled only because it was booked with other events. Chan Samnang, commune chief of Russei Keo, the location of Modern Center 5, said authorities had not intervened.
The conference ended up going forward in Kandal province’s Kdey Takoy village, with participants boarding buses without being told their destination, to prevent further interference, Wahyuningrum said.
Meanwhile, the ASEAN Grassroots Peoples Assembly (AGPA) said that at least five venues where it had scheduled workshops cancelled their agreements “without any prior notice”.
“In at least two instances, the venue owners were pressured behind the scenes by authorities, even as the same authorities publicly stated that they had no objections to the AGPA,” organiser Sar Mora said.
In a statement condemning the action, rights group Adhoc reported: “Cambodian authorities referred to vague ‘security’ aims and ‘public order’ to try to justify their actions.”
Dave Welsh, country director for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said he arrived at Modern Center 2 for an AGPA workers’ rights workshop only to find the venue had closed.
“To make sure nothing occurred, all the electricity was shut down in the buildings,” Welsh said, adding that such actions would surely draw criticism from the hundreds of international participants arriving for the ASEAN summit.
Civil society groups had been having such meetings for eight years, but had only run into problems in Cambodia, Wahyuningrum said, even though they did not specifically target Cambodia but rather sought to address broader ASEAN issues.
Indeed, international participants in the capital’s many workshops yesterday stressed that Cambodians’ concerns, such as land evictions and oppression by large companies, were their concerns, too.
“I want us to appeal to the ASEAN governments together,” said Carmen Anenayo, a member of a community in the Philippines that had been forcibly evicted by a mining company.
Soy Kolap, an evicted Boeung Kak activist now living 20 kilometres outside Phnom Penh, who attended a workshop on land evictions at the Community Legal Education Center yesterday, said evictees were seeking intervention from ASEAN because they received no response from the Cambodian government after countless appeals.
Meanwhile, AGPA said 255 participants faced evictions in miniature from guesthouses yesterday.
“Some were pushed out in the middle of the night, some were intimidated, and others were told that their reservations had mysteriously disappeared,” an AGPA statement said.
Eang Vuthy and Huon Chundy, program managers for Equitable Cambodia and the Community Legal Education Centre, respectively, said that police stopped by their offices and inquired about the AGPA meetings hosted there but did nothing more.
Phnom Penh municipal spokesperson Long Dimanche said he was unaware of the closures, but insisted that the Municipality had no involvement in them.