Cambodian NGOs under the gun
By Sebastian Strangio
PHNOM PENH -These are tough times for Cambodia's embattled non-governmental
organizations (NGOs). As the government gears up to pass controversial
legislation regulating the country's estimated 2,000 civil society groups, it
has drawn strong criticism for a coordinated crackdown on land rights groups
working on a foreign donor-funded railway renovation project.
On August 4, the Cambodian Ministry of Interior suspended the local
organization Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), one of several involved with
monitoring the resettlement of residents displaced by the Asian Development
Bank (ADB) and AusAID-funded rail project. At first authorities claimed the
suspension was due to
inconsistencies in the group's paperwork, but soon tipped their hand.
"STT operated and incited people to oppose national development by the
government in order to make the development partners suspend or stop the
project," the ministry said in an August 14 statement.
The $141 million project will see the renovation of Cambodia's decrepit rail
system and is set to impact around 4,000 poor families living along the tracks.
But resettlement options for those affected have come under fire from STT and
other land rights groups since May 2010, when two young children drowned at a
resettlement site in Battambang province. STT has also accused the government
of the "systematic downgrading" of land values along rail lines in a bid to
short-change residents on compensation.
In recent months, groups working on rail resettlement issues have been attacked
by the highest reaches of the government. In a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen
dated June 17, Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon requested that the
premier approve punitive action against STT and Bridges Across Borders Cambodia
(BABC), another group that has been active on the railway project.
Keat Chhon cited an unnamed ADB consultant as saying the bank had come under
"political pressure" from the two organizations, and asked the government to
"take immediate action" to stem their activities. The minister also issued the
following instructions for Hun Sen's approval: "Do not allow foreign NGOs to do
advocacy work. Local NGOs who do advocacy work must not have foreigners
involved or interfere."
He also requested "action according to the laws to nullify the eligibility of
these NGOs," and referred specifically to a passage of the new NGO law. "I
would like to request the Council of Ministers to review and implement the
draft law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations in a speedy
manner," Keat Chhon wrote.
(ADB country director Putu Kamayana told the German press agency Deutsche
Presse Agentur the bank has conducted "a thorough investigation" which found
"no evidence" of misconduct by any ADB consultants).
In late July, TV station TVK ran an interview with three government officials
about the railway project in which they dismissed NGO criticisms of the
project's resettlement and compensation policies as "baseless". According to a
transcript of the interview, one official went on to slam various unnamed
groups that "incite, provoke and make the affected families to be confused".
He identified the culprits as "a small group of NGOs" that were "composed of
foreigners" and called on their foreign staff to "no longer exploit the
affected people to make your career". The interview has been rebroadcast at
least three times since its original airing.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said STT's
suspension showed that the Cambodian government "doesn't allow legal principles
to get in the way of political priorities". "When the order comes from the top
to shutter a NGO or intimidate a community association, officials take action
first and figure out the justification for what they did afterwards," he said
Since STT's suspension, the government has warned staff from the NGO Forum, an
umbrella civil society organization, over letters it sent to ADB and AusAID
officials alerting them about the situation at resettlement sites. It has also
summoned staff from BABC to warn them about making "false" claims about the
deaths of the two children last year, local media reported.
The repressive atmosphere is spreading. On September 7, Cambodian authorities
and police armed with AK-47s disrupted a human-rights training event organized
by two local NGOs in Kampong Thom province.
According to a statement issued shortly afterwards by the Cambodian Center for
Human Rights (CCHR), which co-organized the workshop, police photographed those
taking part in the event, including local activists and community members
protesting against land grabs.
Participants were told they did not have the necessary "permission" to hold the
workshop. Quoted in the Cambodia Daily, Kampong Thom provincial police chief
Phan Sopheng accused the two organizations of "inciting" local people, and
warned that both could be suspended if they pushed ahead with future events.
Since the United Nations transitional mission of the early 1990s seeded
Cambodia with a vibrant civil society sector, NGOs here have had an ambivalent
relationship with the government.
For Hun Sen, tolerating a vocal civil society has been the price for keeping
the Western aid dollars flowing; their criticisms of his government have been
neutralized by his frequent references to the ravages of the Pol Pot regime,
which stands accused of killing as many as two million people, and vague
promises of future reforms.
This had made Cambodia a relative safe haven for civil society activists - by
Asian standards, at least - but has also made Hun Sen's government one of the
most firmly entrenched, its tight grip on power legitimized internationally by
its apparent tolerance for open criticism.
But with the new NGO law looming on the horizon - coupled with the massive
increase in no-strings-attached aid and investment from China and the generally
supine posture of UN agencies and most other donors - the balance could be
tipping decisively in the government's favor.
Officials have claimed the law, currently in draft form, is necessary to
regulate the country's sometimes unwieldy NGO sector. But the legislation has
been widely criticized for granting the government the power to dissolve
organizations on vague pretexts, and plague small groups with onerous
HRW's Robertson said recent incidents only cast further doubt on the true
purposes of the law. "The problem with the government's claims of benign
regulatory intent is that this totally contradicts their historical record of
going after troublesome NGOs and community associations with the equivalent of
hooks and hammers - including straightforward intimidation, violent repression
of demonstrations, and now regulatory restrictions," he said.
"There is basically no chance that a law on associations and NGOs will be used
in the sort of benevolent, hands-off manner that the government is desperately
trying to persuade the international community to believe," Robertson added.
Indeed, the government's moves could to some degree be an outgrowth of the
souring of relations between Cambodia and some of its international donors.
During a high-level donor meeting in April, USAID country head Flynn Fuller
warned of a funding freeze if the NGO law was passed, describing it as
In August, the World Bank announced it had frozen funding to Cambodia over a
rash of land seizures at Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom Penh, a high-profile
eviction case that was brought to the Bank's attention by several land rights
groups, including STT and BABC. Shortly afterwards, Cambodia indefinitely
postponed its next meeting with donors set for November.
CCHR president Ou Virak said that the active role played by the land rights
NGOs in getting the World Bank to take action on the Boeung Kak issue may very
well have pushed the government into taking a stronger stance against criticism
of the rail project. He said the government had responded to its critics "the
only way they know how" - by attacking the messenger.
But the groups involved say that contrary to the government's implications,
they are not opposed to national development. Ee Sarom, STT's programs
coordinator, said his group was working for "a transparent and sustainable
development process that benefits all sectors of society and does not leave
citizens worse off."
"This type of work is important in ensuring development projects are equitable,
sustainable, and beneficial to all Cambodians," he said.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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