By Hanna Hindstrom
Grassroots activists from across Southeast Asia have been harassed and intimidated by Cambodian authorities this week, in what has been described as an effort to silence civil society voices ahead of this weekend’s Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh.
At least five different venues set to host civil society forums ahead of the ASEAN summit cancelled their agreements at the last minute under government pressure, according to activists.
Reports suggest that officials turned up late on Tuesday night to issue threats to hosting organisations and business owners, even shutting off the electricity in two buildings.
“In at least two instances the venue owners were pressured behind the scenes by authorities, even as the same authorities publicly stated that they had no objections,” said Sar Mora, one of organisers of the ASEAN grassroots peoples’ assembly (AGPA).
The AGPA held their opening ceremony in the dark on Tuesday night, after the electricity in the restaurant meant to host the event was turned off. According to AGPA, more than 100 local activists were later evicted from their guesthouses in the middle of the night after police interference.
Meanwhile, the ASEAN peoples’ forum and civil society conference was forced to relocate several miles outside the city on Wednesday, where activists pitched up canopies on a grass field overlooking the Mekong river.
“When they shut us down, we will shine a light on human rights,” Professor Joshua Cooper from the University of Hawaii told a crowd of hundreds.
Activists say it is not the first time they’ve faced harassment ahead of the ASEAN summit and fear that it reflects the organisation’s wider disregard for community voices. Currently, there is no formal relationship between civil society groups and the high-profile summit, which is frequented by global leaders including Burma’s President Thein Sein and US President Barack Obama.
Alain Vandersmissen from the EU Comission said he was “disappointed” by the government’s actions, but hoped that it would bring more attention to civil society movements within ASEAN. “Everyone in Phnom Penh is talking about this forum.”
The AGPA are planning to march through the city on Friday to present a set of policy recommendations to ASEAN leaders, despite a government-imposed ban on all public protests.
“Last time [in March] we asked permission and the government still stopped us from running a number of events,” explains Sok Sam Oeun from the Cambodian Defenders Project.
The government has also been accused of sweeping beggars off the streets of Phnom Penh ahead of the summit, where leaders are set to adopt the ASEAN human rights declaration.
“It is quite ironic that the ASEAN will express support for its [own] human rights declaration, while they are creating human rights violations,” said Jeremi Panganiban, a women’s rights campaigner from the Philippines.
The ASEAN human rights declaration has itself drawn criticism from global campaigners for its weak provisions. The UN human rights council this week became the latest to slam the document, including the lack of transparency and civil society participation in the drafting process.
Yuyun Wahyuningrum from the Human Rights Working Groups in Indonesia said she wasn’t surprised by the Cambodian government’s actions this week as it reflects the ASEAN human rights declaration’s failure to recognise basic rights, including freedom of association.
Burma is set to take the ASEAN chair in 2014.