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CCHR deplores curtailment of freedoms, silencing of civil society during ASEAN Summit

(CCHR/IFEX) - Phnom Penh, 1 April 2012 - The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) condemns a series of attempts by the Cambodian authorities to curtail the rights to freedom of expression and assembly of ordinary people and civil society organizations in and around the five-day summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations ("ASEAN") that began in Cambodia on 30 March 2012.

Pressure from the authorities on the Lucky Star Hotel has led to the severe disruption of four workshops at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People's Forum on 30 March 2012. The civil society organizations in question were forced to move their workshops away from the main venue, leaving little time to make alternative arrangements. Some workshops were cancelled, others re-located at the last minute. The affected workshops focused on (1) land rights and evictions, (2) indigenous land rights, (3) agro-industrial and environmental issues, and (4) the political and human rights situation in Burma and the challenges posed to its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, all politically sensitive topics.

The disruption of the workshops follows the violent repression by the authorities earlier in the week of a demonstration by garment factory workers. Speaking in response to reports of the authorities' use of violence against demonstrators, Phnom Penh Police Chief Touch Naroth stated that people had to think of the "dignity" of the country and that groups would not be allowed to protest around the time of the ASEAN summit.

And, also on 30 March 2012, a community of 30 villagers from Koh Kong province came to Phnom Penh to deliver a petition to Hu Jintao, the visiting Chinese President, but were forced onto a bus and driven back to Koh Kong. These villagers are involved in a land conflict resulting from an economic land concession granted to Union Development Co. Ltd - a Chinese company - to build an extensive luxury tourist resort development in Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts. The action was taken at the behest of Phnom Penh police and the Deputy Provincial Governor of Koh Kong, Sun Nara. The villagers were told that they were not allowed to protest during the ASEAN summit, and were promised that they would soon see a resolution to their land conflict. Such promises have been made many times before.

The actions by the authorities described above are in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, guaranteed in Cambodian and international law. In addition, Article 1.13 of the ASEAN Charter states that its objective is "to promote a people-oriented ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building". The Cambodian government is evidently happy to flout the ASEAN Charter, suggesting a government that is keen to ensure that ASEAN is kept well away from its people.

CCHR President Ou Virak, responding to these developments, comments:

"The events of the last couple of days are deeply concerning. Civil society organizations have come to Phnom Penh in good faith to discuss issues affecting people across ASEAN, and have now been prevented from speaking. Such curtailment of the right to freedom of expression is unacceptable. Furthermore, Cambodians' rights to freedom of assembly have also been grossly violated as protests by ordinary people have been put down in order to present visiting dignitaries with an image of social order. Fundamental freedoms are not fair-weather friends: people are entitled to them all the time, not just when there are no guests in town. The Cambodian government is clearly more concerned with what its neighbors think than in looking after its own people. The irony is that Friday's events are a major embarrassment to Cambodia, when it could have set an example to the region. In a week in which so many people travelled to discuss the goal of a "people-centered" ASEAN, the Cambodian government has decided to show the region and the world just how difficult that goal will be to achieve."

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