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.

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.