Cambodian authorities have disrupted several events held by nongovernmental organizations and have threatened to arrest anyone holding protests ahead of sensitive regional summits to be held in the capital Phnom Penh, rights groups said Wednesday.
The Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA) said authorities in Meanchey district forced the owner of a local restaurant to shut down the meeting space he had rented to a group of NGOs ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit from Nov 18 to 20.
Top leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, will attend the meetings.
Ngoung Mongtha, an IDEA official, told RFA’s Khmer service that hundreds of NGO officials met on Wednesday morning to discuss requests for a petition the group planned to submit to leaders of the 10-member ASEAN body during the summit.
Cambodia is the current chair of ASEAN, which also includes member states Brunei, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
“More than 300 officials were forced to leave on Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. The owner of the building they had rented shut off the electricity and forced them out,” Ngoung Mongtha said.
“The owner was pressured by local authorities. Three police officers were present at the meeting and later a police officer asked the NGO staffers to end their discussion.”
According to reports, authorities had warned the restaurant owner of possible consequences if “a grenade attack” occurred during the NGO meeting.
Vorn Pov, IDEA president, said that the NGOs had been meeting to discuss 12 separate topics, without providing details. He said the NGO officials now plan to meet in a variety of different locations around Phnom Penh to continue their discussions.
At least 50 villagers from various provinces around Cambodia that had traveled to the capital to support the petition bid through protests during the ASEAN Summit were also kicked out of a local guesthouse early on Wednesday, Vorn Pov said.
Lor Lyno, the police chief of nearby Chak Angre Krom commune, said he had not prevented the meeting from taking place.
"I didn't stop the meeting," he said, when contacted by phone.
Reports of the alleged intimidation of the NGOs in the capital on Wednesday came as another civil society organization expressed concerns that authorities in Phnom Penh had prevented two earlier NGO events planned in connection with the upcoming ASEAN Summit.
The Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said Cambodian authorities were “repeatedly disturbing” the organization of the ASEAN People’s Forum 2012 in the capital, which had been planned for Nov. 14-16.
“The venues that the [APF] committee booked for the event have been canceled by the owners on two occasions due to pressure from the Cambodian authorities,” the statement said.
“The Committee has been exploring other potential venues to host the event, however members are deeply concerned and frustrated at the continued disruption by the authorities,” it said, adding that APF workshops had been similarly harassed in March.
The CCHR said that the opening ceremony of a sister event—the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly—had ended “prematurely” on Tuesday after the venue owner refused to sell food or drinks to participants and turned off the site’s electricity.
Reports said that some 2,000 participants had gathered for the Tuesday event.
Event organizers said that the restaurant owner was “pressured by the local authorities to cancel the event” and that workshops scheduled for Wednesday as part of the four-day assembly had also been canceled by the venue owner “at the last minute.”
The group also cited a Monday report by Cambodia Express News which said that a spokesman from the Phnom Penh municipal government had warned activists involved in land dispute cases that the authorities would “arrest any protesters during the ASEAN Summit.”
Authorities have said they will deploy around 10,000 police officers during the ASEAN meeting, during which time demonstrations will be prohibited and universities located close to where ASEAN delegates will travel will be ordered to close.
“The above actions of the Cambodian authorities are in violation of the right to freedom of assembly,” the CCHR said.
“The actions also run contrary to Article 1 of the ASEAN Charter, which states that all ASEAN members must ‘promote a people-orientated ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building.”
As the current chair of ASEAN, Cambodia is eager to avoid a second gaffe after an unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July over the region's dispute with Beijing on overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Some diplomats from ASEAN had charged that Cambodia was influenced by its giant ally China not to incorporate the views of ASEAN member states the Philippines and Vietnam in the statement, causing an impasse at the meeting.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.