Ministry ups scrutiny of NGOs

Source: Phnom Penh Post

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks at a forum last week at the ministry’s headquarters in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

The Interior Ministry has instructed provincial officials to urgently report any instances in which activities are carried out by any NGOs or grassroots associations without prior notification, adding that authorities can stop any planned events if they affect “public order and national security”.

The letter, which was dispatched countrywide on October 2, coincides with an intensified government crackdown on nongovernmental organisations.

“Associations and NGOs wishing to conduct activities in the territory of a specific city or province have to inform the Ministry of Interior about the nature of activity or directly inform the administration . . . within three days before the activity starts,” the letter reads.

Under the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, groups are required to inform authorities of public gatherings, but are not required to get permission beforehand. The law also forbids officials from blocking gatherings under anything but extreme circumstances – though protests and even private meetings with NGOs are often shut down for lacking permission to gather.

The Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) also does require NGOs to report their day to day activities.

Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community, said the new directive would embolden officials to impinge on the right of communities to organise local-level activities, adding that the conduct of even workshops and trainings would be at the behest of local authorities.

“This will only give the [local] authorities pretext to shutdown or suspend workshops [organised] for the local communities,” he said.

Pol Lim, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, dismissed any questions raised over the directive. “They [NGOs] just say like that, but the law does not do that,” he said.

The directive fits a pattern of increasing attention paid by the government to NGOs. In recent months, election monitor Comfrel and rights groups Licadho and Adhoc have been pulled up over alleged tax compliance issues.

The NGO Equitable Cambodia was the first major group to fall afoul of the controversial Lango, when it was suspended for one month in late September over assistance to villagers in land disputes with sugar producing firms.

Additionally, environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia asked to be removed from the NGO registry after repeated legal harassment of its activists and alleged threats to its founder. The group now plans to continue as a citizens’ movement.

Union leader Sar Mora expressed concern about the sweeping nature of the instructions. “The meaning of the letter is too vague. It will be easy for provincial, district or commune authorities to ban or stop any activities of NGOs or local communities,” he said.

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