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Cambodian NGOs under the gun

Asia Times - September 19, 2011

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 by e-mail.

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.

Stifled voices

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 registration procedures.

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 "excessively restrictive".

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 sebastian.strangio@gmail.com.]

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