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Venues snub ASEAN activists

121114_03

Performers sing during an ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

As the latest ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh approaches, so does a familiar sideshow.

The meetings open tomorrow, but activist groups say they are already being shut out of public and private spaces by authorities, though they remain determined to weigh in on issues they wish to see tackled at the summit. 

Representatives from the ASEAN Grassroots Peoples Assembly said yesterday they planned to march tomorrow to present the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with recommendations for consideration by ASEAN, despite Phnom Penh’s refusal to allow the march and other obstructionist tactics.

“It’s difficult for us, but we really hope the Phnom Penh Municipality will understand our concerns and give us space,” Cambodian Food Services Workers Federation president and AGPA organiser Sar Mora said at AGPA’s opening event last night.

But space for AGPA had so far been in short supply, Mora said, speaking in the growing dark because the hosting Stung Meas Restaurant had refused to turn on its electricity.

Earlier in the day, local authorities had pressured the restaurant’s owners not to host the kick-off, telling them they would be legally responsible for anything that happened, he said.

“The way they expressed the threat made the owners very scared.”

Nevertheless, hundreds of participants crowded into the restaurant’s courtyard to listen to a series of stirring songs and speeches. AGPA says more than 2,000 people will participate in its workshops over the next four days.

Participants included farmers, communities affected by evictions, garment workers, indigenous peoples, sex workers, members of the LGBT community and representatives from other ASEAN countries, AGPA organiser Ly Pisey said.

“We can see very clearly that the authorities can cut off your electricity but they can’t cut off your power,” Shalmali Guttal, Thailand program officer for the grassroots support group Focus on the Global South, told the group at the restaurant.

The owners of the Stung Meas Restaurant were not available for comment, but the Tuol Kork Centre, which yesterday reneged on an agreement to host AGPA workshops scheduled for today, said it was unable to host conferences and that AGPA had not shown adequate permission from commune or district authorities.  

Mora said the Tuol Kork Centre had also received threats from local authorities.

He said AGPA participants had also been turned away from a few guesthouses.

Guttal told the Post several other venues for AGPA events had pulled out, even though the events were private and, therefore, theoretically out of the government’s realm.

AGPA organisers said the government had also pressured venues to refuse to host meetings of the ASEAN People’s Forum, whose meetings coinciding with last March’s ASEAN summit were blocked by authorities.

City spokesman Long Dimanche said before the AGPA kick-off yesterday that he had not received adequate information to respond.

He could not be reached for comment later.

The Chroy Changvar comm-une chief and commune police chief denied knowledge of pressure for venues such as Stung Meas to exclude AGPA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at justine.drennan@phnompenhpost.com ;
With assistance from Khouth Sophak Chakrya and May Titthara

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