More than 1,000 people from civil society organisations and community groups have gathered for a three-day “People’s Assembly” in Phnom Penh to express their views and offer agenda items that it would like the Cambodian government to submit to the ASEAN leaders who would attending this month’s ASEAN Summit. Many of them expressed the hope that their requests would be accepted.

According to a press release from the conference’s participants, the assembly will run from November 1-3.

“This assembly is part of a grassroots movement and allows social activists from across Southeast Asia to express their solidarity and share their voices with the region’s leadership. We expect our needs to be taken care of and our voices heard,” said the release.

The event was organised by representatives and community leaders from across the region, with the coordination and support of five civil society organisations. More than 1,000 local community members and activists from the provinces of Cambodia and more than 50 friends from ASEAN members are in attendance.

“The first day is the opening of the assembly, with press conferences, exhibitions and the distribution of seeds and agricultural products to farmers, and arts programs. On the 2nd day, there will be workshops to explore and analyse issues at both the national and ASEAN levels over food sovereignty, food system crisis, impacts on free trade, land and housing rights, natural resources and climate change, the impact of Covid-19, sex workers and the role of art in contributing to the social movement,” the statement said.

The assembly is an opportunity for people to learn about the context and political situation in the ASEAN region, while the third day of the assembly will allow the participants to express their views on issues and needs as well as to summarise their joint recommendations and integrate them into a people’s statement, which will be submitted to the ASEAN leadership through the Cambodian government, it added.

Chea Sopheak, a representative of the assembly’s organisers, said it as an opportunity for local people to express their opinions and raise issues that they are facing.

“In the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, assemblies or congresses were organised regularly, so the leaders of the time could hear and address the concerns of the people. The people have given power to the government through democratic elections, so the government should not be afraid of the issues raised by the people. I hope that people’s assemblies will be held every year from now on,” he said.

Ke Sophy, a representative of a community in Siem Reap, said there are many unresolved land disputes in her province, with thousands of families struggling to find solutions and establish legal ownership of their land.

“Through this assembly, I hope the government will accelerate the resolution of land issues and hand land titles to people in Siem Reap and throughout Cambodia,” she said.

Svay Phoeun, an indigenous Kuy from Preah Vihear province, explained why he volunteered to organise the conference.

“I, and other members of the indigenous community, want the opportunity to raise our concerns over the right to manage and use natural resources, and the impact of land concessions on indigenous communities,” he said.

Phay Siphan, minister Attached to the Prime Minister and chairman of the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit, said ASEAN is an intergovernmental organisation that has no rights to interfere in the internal affairs of any country. Therefore, he said the congress could not be taken seriously. It was merely a gathering of people sharing their opinions, which they were entitled to do under Cambodian law.

“Where did this congress come from? Where did the community organisation come from? It appears that this is nothing more than a meeting of members of the public. How can ASEAN, an intergovernmental organisation, resolve any of their issues?” he asked.

Phay Siphan encouraged the attendees to seek out the relevant Cambodian institutions, such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. These are the bodies that can resolve their problems, he said, adding that this would make more sense than approaching an institution which had no authority in domestic affairs.