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.

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.