NGO ‘incitement’

Vong Sokheng and Mary Kozlovski, Phnom Penh Post, Aug 15 2011

The Ministry of Interior has accused a local NGO it suspended earlier this month of “inciting villagers” set to be displaced by a railway reconstruction project, citing it in a statement obtained by The Post yesterday as a reason for halting the organisat-ion’s operations.

The statement, signed by the spokesman for the Ministry of Inter-ior, says Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which works with poor urban communities, has been suspended until December 31 for failing to report some of its activities and actions regarding development projects.

“The STT has acted [by] inciting villagers in Kampot province and in Phnom Penh to protest [against] the government development plan, aiming to do whatever [it can] to make the development partners of the government suspend or stop the national development plan for restoring the railway,” the statement says.

The document also states that STT was suspended because the organis-ation had changed its director three times without informing the Interior Ministry and had opened an office in Kampot province without notifying local authorities.

In July, STT released a report stating that compensation for villagers in four communities affected by the railway reconstruction project, which runs from Phnom Penh to Sihan-oukville and Battambang, might be insufficient due to a “systematic downgrade” of the value of their homes by the government.

On August 2, STT received a letter from the Interior Ministry ordering the organisation to “suspend [its] activities” until the end of this year because STT “has not modified its leadership structure and made revis-ions to its statute according to the instruction of a specialised department”. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said yesterday that NGOs must conduct their activities in accordance with their own statutes, which are kept at the Ministry of Interior.

STT programme co-ordinator Ee Sarom said via email yesterday that STT was looking into the letter and that the organisation looked forward “to returning to our operations as soon as possible”.

A joint statement released by civil- society groups on Thursday condemned STT’s suspension as “arbitrary” and a glimpse of future government treatment of civil society if a controversial draft law on NGOs and associations is passed.

“Even before the restrictive law has been enacted, Cambodian society has been offered  a preview into the future of government control over civil- society organisations and associations,” the joint statement says.

Meanwhile, at a meeting in the US on Friday, development and rights organisations expressed concern that the delivery of foreign aid and overseas investment in the Kingdom, including from the US, could be compromised if the draft NGO law were passed in its present form.

Rights groups have been vocal in their criticism of the draft law, which would compel NGOs and associations to register with the government and adhere to numerous reporting requirements.

“One doesn’t need a crystal ball to envisage that if this law passes in its current form, it will make aid delivery extremely inefficient, ineffective and cumbersome,” Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, senior program manager for Southeast Asia at Freedom House, said via email on Saturday.

Gunawardena-Vaughn said that although an appeals process had been reintroduced in the third draft of the law, released last month, it still provided the government with a “carte blanche” in the registrat-ion or termination of civil society groups.

“In this environment of economic belt-tightening …  it will certainly give Western donors pause with regard to whether Cambodia will be the country in which they will see the best bang for their buck,” she said.

Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America, said Cambodians who relied on the support of civil-society groups for their livelihoods would be hurt the most if the draft law was passed in its present form.

He added that although Oxfam could not speak on behalf of the US government, the organisation was “gravely” concerned about the impact the draft law could have on US investment in Cambodia.

“In these economic times, the US wants reassurance that its investments will be maximised and sustained by a vibrant civil society,” Adams  said via email.

Rights groups have said  it will be difficult for civil-society organisations to have further input into the draft law, which was sent to the Council of Ministers last month.

Government officials have previously said the law on NGOs and associations would not infringe on the rights of civil society groups and would strengthen democracy in Cambodia.