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.

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Campaign Against NGO Law Intensifies

Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai, Radio Free Asia, Aug 12 2011

oncerned by Cambodia’s suspension of a German-funded society advocating for the urban poor, nongovernmental organizations in the country have stepped up a campaign against a proposed law governing their activities.

Forty civil society bodies and umbrella groups condemned in a statement Friday the Cambodian government’s decision suspending the operations of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) for five months effective Aug. 1, citing its failure to file certain documents.

“The use of a vague administrative technicality to suspend an organization 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 marginalized groups within Cambodian society,” the groups said in a joint statement.

“We condemn the suspension of STT in the strongest possible terms. The suspension of STT is completely arbitrary and a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and association, and an assault on human rights defenders,” they said.

The groups, which include groups such as Oxfam, Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), and NGO Coalition to Address Trafficking & Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia, demanded an “immediate reversal” of the suspension.

“We regard this act to silence STT as an act of oppression against us all,” they said.

STT, which has worked for six years providing services and advice to urban communities in Cambodia, has the German government’s development arm Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as one of its key funders.

Third draft

The suspension came as the government considers the third draft of a controversial law designed to regulate nongovernmental organizations that has been criticized by NGOs and some donors as an an attempt to restrict freedom of association and speech as well as the growth of civil society.

“Civil society organizations, including associations and NGOs, are very concerned that the law in its third draft gives far-reaching power to the authorities to control the rights of citizens to organize and express themselves,” said a statement issued by a group of NGOs on Aug. 3.

These rights are set out in the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties that Cambodia has signed, the statement said.

Speaking at the Washington offices of Oxfam America—an international aid and development group—Cooperation Committee of Cambodia executive director Borithy Lun said that Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior released the law’s third draft on July 29.

The draft includes some recommendations made by NGOs in response to earlier drafts, but does not address all of their concerns, Lun said.

He urged Cambodia’s government to look again at the recommendations made by NGOs operating in the country.

“We feel it is very important for civil society to have space to operate, and for [civil-society groups and NGOs] to be able to continue to serve the poor and vulnerable people of Cambodia.”

Unclear provisions in the law, as it is now drafted, would make it difficult for NGOs and small, community-based organizations to work to help Cambodia’s poor, and would block the country’s economic development, Lun said.

Among these provisions, Lun said, is the requirement under Article 6 that all NGOs—both grassroots organizations and international groups—re-register with the government.

The proposed law will now go to Cambodia’s Council of Ministers and National Assembly for approval, then to the Senate for review, and then to the Constitutional Council, Lun said. Finally, it will be enacted by “endorsed royal assent” by the King.

Enabling NGOs

The law in its final form should “enable” rather than restrict the operations of NGOs in Cambodia, Lun said.

“We have taken action in Cambodia to brief the members of parliament and brief the members of the Senate, sharing with them our concerns and our recommendation as to how this law should be amended to reflect the ‘enabling’ aspect, so that civil society can function to serve the people of Cambodia.”

But legislative action to approve the law now stands at “the eleventh hour”  Lun said, and could move forward very quickly at this point.

Also speaking at Oxfam, Sue Vaughn—Freedom House senior program manager for Southeast Asia and International Religious Freedom—agreed that the law might now be enacted quickly, but said there may still be time to recommend changes.

It is in the Cambodian government’s own interest to protect “peaceful dissent, peaceful association, and peaceful assembly” in the country, as these will promote further development, Vaughn said.

“I think that Cambodia has had unprecedented peace in the last ten years. It has had unprecedented economic development and growth, and these are all good things. And we need to acknowledge those good things that have come out in the last ten years.”

A “vibrant” Cambodian civil society will lead to a vibrant Cambodian democracy and will attract foreign investors, Vaughn said.

Vaughn noted that Cambodia will take on the chairmanship of ASEAN next year.

“If Cambodia goes through with enacting a law that really represses its civil society, it is going to lose credibility—both in the region as well as in the international arena.”

Cambodia must demonstrate both to the international community and to its regional partners in Southeast Asia that it takes democracy seriously, Vaughn said.

Pending Passage of NGO Law, Cambodia Suspends Urban Poor Group

Che de los Reyes, Devex, Aug 12 2011

Cambodia’s suspension of a local non-governmental organization critical of a government project raises concern over an administrative crackdown on groups advocating the rights of the marginalized.

The move comes at a time when the country is about to pass a law, which international and civil society groups fear would give the government discretionary powers and control over them.

Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a German-funded, local non-governmental organization that works with urban communities, was ordered to halt its operations for five months starting Aug. 1 for its alleged failure to submit certain documents to the government.

The move has drawn protests from civil society groups in the country who say that the government’s decision has no legal basis.

STT has been known to be critical of a $142 million government project to rehabilitate Cambodia’s railway. The project is jointly funded by the Asian Development Bank and the Australian government. The group said that households displaced by the project are worse off because they have not received the full compensation due them, which could have enabled them to build a home in the relocation site provided by the government.

Cambodia’s Council of Ministers is currently discussing the third draft of an NGO law that has drawn criticism from donors and development groups around the world. The draft will next go to parliament, where it is expected to be passed by the ruling party.

Cambodia suspends German-funded NGO that lobbies for urban poor

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Monsters and Critics, Aug 11 2011

Phnom Penh – A collective of more than 30 civil society bodies and umbrella groups on Thursday condemned a decision to suspend a local non-governmental organization that advocates for the urban poor in Cambodia.

Earlier the government confirmed it had ordered Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) to suspend operations for five months starting August 1, citing its failure to file certain documents.

However the civil society collective said there appeared to be no legal basis for the suspension, and demanded it be reversed.

‘To our knowledge the real reason for suspending STT is the organisation’s legitimate work among urban poor communities,’ the collective said in its statement.

STT has worked for six years providing services and advice to urban communities.

The German government’s development arm Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is one of its key funders, as is German Catholic charity Misereor.

STT’s program coordinator Ee Sarom said Thursday the organization was ‘committed to pro-poor sustainable development’, and looked forward to resuming operations ‘as soon as possible.’

In the past two years STT has criticized aspects of the 142-million-dollar redevelopment of Cambodia’s decrepit rail network. Funding for that project has come from the Asian Development Bank, the Australian government and Phnom Penh.

The NGO has previously complained that the project had made some of the country’s poorest even worse off, a stance that observers say has annoyed the government.

STT’s suspension comes as the Council of Ministers assesses a controversial draft law designed to regulate civil society. Hundreds of NGOs and some donors, including the United States, have come out against the current draft.

One objection is that registration would be both complicated and mandatory for every association and organization; another is that the draft lacks safeguards against dissolution or denial of registration.

Unless the draft is sent back to ministries for further work, it will proceed next to parliament where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s majority could see it quickly passed.

The NGO collective claimed STT’s suspension was indicative of the government’s intent to use the law ‘to curb the activities of all associations and NGOs that advocate for the rights of marginalized groups.’