Intimidation of NGOs Continues Before Summits

Local authorities across Phnom Penh yesterday continued to intimidate the owners of venues and guesthouses reserved by civil society groups holding meetings ahead of next week’s Asean and East Asia summits, according to a U.N. official and rights workers.

The Asean Grassroots Peoples Network (AGPA), which on Tuesday had to cut short its opening ceremony when a restaurant owner refused to host the event, ran into more problems yesterday.

And a meeting on labor and migration issues at Modern Center 2, a venue normally used for weddings in Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Krom commune, was aborted, said Moeun Tola, head of the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center.

“When the workshop was in process, the local authorities—the commune police officers—they went to ask the organizers whether they have the permit from the municipality,” he said.

After leaving the commune police office, a manager at the venue then told participants they had to leave, Mr. Tola said. “He cut the electricity and the water.”

Commune police chief Lor Linno denied that police had shut down the meeting, and people answering the phones at the venue said it was business as usual. “No NGOs held a meeting, it was just wedding parties as normal,” said an employee, who declined to give her name.

Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche denied knowledge of the interference. “I don’t know. City Hall did not order [to shut down the meetings],” he said.

James Heenan, representative for the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia, said in an email that his office had been monitoring the meetings in the run-up to the Asean and East Asia summits and found that many organizers had received warnings, had their names and photographs taken, or had venue owners cancel.

“Many people have reported that the owners are doing this after pressure from the authorities,” he said. “We have raised these concerns directly with the authorities.”

AGPA said in a statement yesterday that more than 250 participants—largely Cambodians visiting Phnom Penh from the provinces—have been forced out of their guesthouses this week.

“[S]ome were pushed out in the middle of the night, some were intimidated, and others were told that their reservations had mysteriously disappeared,” the statement said.

While AGPA said 11 of its 12 workshops—which discussed issues such as evictions, land concessions, food security and trade within Asean—were held successfully, each one was subject to some kind of interference from plainclothes police or the venue owners demanding that the workshop not discuss political issues.

At a separate event, the Asean Peoples’ Forum, which had to change its venue twice due to intimidation, was eventually held several kilometers outside of Phnom Penh at a Sovan Koma Organization orphanage in Kandal province, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project and a member of the forum’s national steering committee.

“We couldn’t find another [venue in town], but this venue is an NGO so the local authorities cannot disturb,” he said. “We received some police officials, but it’s OK. What we talk [about], we want the government to hear.”

Local rights group Adhoc condemned the interference in a statement issued yesterday. “The intimidation of organizers and participants at the meetings is an unacceptable affront to basic freedoms of expression and assembly and sends a powerful message to the world that the Cambodian government is not committed to the creation of an Asean that respects fundamental rights and freedoms,” the statement said.

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