NGOs in shock over ‘arbitrary’ suspension

Vincent MacIsaac and Mom Kunthea, Phnom Penh Post, Aug 12 2011

The “arbitrary” suspension of a Phnom Penh NGO that works with the city’s poor offers a preview of what will happen when a new law on associations and NGOs is enacted, civil society groups warned yesterday.

“Even before the restrictive law has been enacted, Cambodian society has been offered a preview into the future of government control over civil society,” a statement from a group of more than 30 NGOs and donor groups said.

“The use of a vague administrative technicality to suspend an organisation is an alarmingly clear sign of how the Cambodian government intends to use the NGO law to curb the activities of all associations and NGOs that advocate for the rights of marginalised groups,” the groups said.

The national and international organisations ranged from rights groups to unions, Christian aid agencies and NGOs that promote children’s rights. The groups gathered yesterday afternoon at the office of NGO Forum to discuss the suspension of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut by the Ministry of Interior.

STT received a letter from the ministry on August 2 ordering it to “suspend [its] activities” until the end of this year. The NGO produces research on urban development. It also researches relocations sites for those evicted from the capital.

Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said the lawyers and rights workers who have been analysing the ministry’s letter “found no legal basis for the suspension”.

“Lawyers have poured over this letter and no one has been able to understand [the legal reasoning behind it]. The best we can determine is that the relevant ministries have decided to implement the law on associations and NGOs before it has even been passed and enacted,” she said. “If this can be done arbitrarily, any group can be closed and suspended.”

The letter cites administrative and procedural breaches, such as “failing to modify its leadership structure”, as reasons for the suspension, according to lawyers who have analysed it.

Yesterday’s statement from civil society groups said they were “not aware of any legal provision authorising such a suspension” and that attempts “to seek clarification from the Ministry of Interior have been met with silence”.

Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said he was “shocked” by the suspension. “Imagine what will happen when the NGO law is passed,” he said.

A third draft of the controversial legislation is at the Council of Ministers. It has been sharply criticised as an attempt by the government to restrict freedom of association and speech, as well as undermine the progress Cambodia has made in developing a civil society sector.

“The future of Cambodia democracy is at a crossroads,” the groups warned yesterday. “STT’s work with some of Cambodia’s most marginalised communities should be applauded, not silenced.”

STT programme coordinator Ee Sarom said: “We deeply regret the recent decision of the MoI and we look forward to returning to our operations as soon as possible.”

Tith Sothea, spokesman for Quick Press Reaction Unit, declined to comment, referring questions to Nouth Sa An, secretary of state of Ministry off Interior, who could not be reached.