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Authorities rid city of dissent ahead of ASEAN summit

Cambodia's commitment to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) claim that the regional body is "people-oriented" rang hollow as authorities prevented a workshop on Burma's human rights situation from happening at an ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh, reports the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

According to CCHR, the authorities put pressure on one of the venues hosting a parallel peoples' summit, forcing groups to move their workshops or even cancel them all together. Besides the workshop on Burma, the affected sessions focused on land rights and evictions, indigenous land rights, and agro-industrial and environmental issues.

"Civil society organisations 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," said CCHR president Virak Ou.

The disruption of the workshops follows warnings by Phnom Penh's Chief of Police Touch Naroth that groups would not be allowed to protest peacefully around the official ASEAN summit on 3-4 April.

As if to prove his point, a demonstration by garment factory workers was violently suppressed last week. Speaking in response to the violence, Naroth stated that people had to think of the "dignity" of the country.

In a separate incident, a group of 30 villagers from Koh Kong involved in a land dispute with a Chinese company came to Phnom Penh to deliver a petition to Chinese President Hu Jintao on 30 March. They were ordered onto a bus by police and driven back to Koh Kong.

"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," said Ou. "The Cambodian government is clearly more concerned with what its neighbours think than in looking after its own people."

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