Scoop (New Zealand)
Friday, 12 June 2009
Press Release: Asian Human Rights Commission
Cambodia: Phnom Penh Municipality’s Impossible Requirement For Holding Forum Violates Freedom Of Assembly
Over the recent months, a human rights NGO, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), has been making arrangements to hold a public forum for concerned officials and residents of Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh to discuss the issue of the eviction of these residents without just compensation. The Municipality of Phnom Penh has leased, allegedly illegally, the natural lake called Boeung Kak and its surroundings to Shukaku Inc., a private development company owned by a Senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), for a period of 99 years for US$79 million. This municipality has since been pressuring the residents of the area to accept its compensation package, an offer which the residents have repeatedly rejected.
The CCHR has encountered continuous difficulties in finding a venue and getting a permit from the municipal authorities for this particular meeting due to various forms of social control. On Friday 5 June at the very end of that day’s work and the end of the working week, the Municipality of Phnom Penh served the CCHR director with a summons to appear before its officials, police officers and officials from concerned departments on Monday 8 June at 2:30PM. The director of the CCHR was out of the country, and in the morning of Monday the CCHR office submitted, by hand, a letter to the Municipality seeking the postponement of the meeting until he returned later in the week. The Municipality refused to acknowledge receipt of the letter and insisted the meeting be held as shown in the summons.
The CCHR was compelled to comply. Its officials enlisted the participation of an official from the field Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the scheduled meeting. A number of officials from other NGOs lent support but were not allowed in and had to wait outside. At the end of the discussions on the holding of the forum, the municipal officials insisted that they would not consider any application for a permit to hold any forum for the residents of the area until the CCHR submitted with that application a receipt for payment of rent for the venue with the amount clearly stated and the signature of the owner of the premises.
The CCHR had already met that requirement when, on 25 May, a guest house called Lazy Fish near the lake agreed to rent its premises to the CCHR as the venue for US$250. It booked the premises and made a deposit of US$50. The forum was then planned for 12 June. But hardly a week later, on 1 June, the head and deputy head of the village where the guest house is located threatened the owner, saying: “If you let the CCHR conduct the public forum, your quest house will close after the forum.” Several days later the owner was summoned to their office. After his meeting with the commune officials, he informed the CCHR that he no longer wanted to rent his place for its forum unless the CCHR could secure a permit from the municipal authorities. On the morning of 8 June when the CCHR went to meet with the municipal officials, a police force of about 20 men surrounded the Lazy Fish guesthouse and shut it down on the charge that its business license had expired.
Before it found the Lazy Fish guest house, the CCHR had also been denied the yard of a mosque and a Buddhist monastery in the area when officials of these religious places, afraid of falling out of favour with their ‘benefactors’, withdrew their original consent to allow the use of their property. As a result the CCHR had to postpone its forum. Upon this postponement, local officials warned a woman resident who was distributing leaflets announcing the forum of the consequences of her activity. They told her, “Why do you continue to call and incite residents to go to the meeting now that the forum has already been called off? You should quietly contact the company. Beware! You could be sent to prison.”
Such threats and intimidation, and especially the way the authorities shut down Lazy Fish guesthouse after it had rented its premises, have created a climate of fear in the locality. It is now impossible for the CCHR to find anyone who is willing to rent their premises to be used as a venue for the forum. This means that the CCHR cannot obtain either premises or a receipt for payment of rent to submit with its application for permit to the Municipality of Phnom Penh. It is now a catch 22 situation. In order to be able to rent premises they must obtain a certificate from the local officials and the local officials will not issue a permit unless they can provide documentary evidence of having rented premises.
As a result, the residents of Boeung Kak Lake cannot exercise their constitutional right to freedom of assembly and expression, and in a matter of time they, like hundreds of thousands of their fellow Cambodians in a similar situation, will be forcibly evicted from their homes and lands without just compensation.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) holds that, by instilling fear in the population and then imposing a requirement which is impossible to meet, the Municipality of Phnom Penh has denied the residents of Boeung Kak Lake the enjoyment of their constitutional right to freedom of assembly and expression. The AHRC strongly urges the Cambodian government to order the Municipality of Phnom Penh to withdraw this requirement and remove any other obstacles to the holding of the forum so that those residents can exercise their rights.
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.