Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Cambodian law 'cracking down' on NGOs

Updated September 28, 2011 07:15:00
The Cambodian government is pushing ahead with a new law to govern thousands of non-government organisations (NGOs), which would allow it to shut them down at will.
NGOs are lobbying the Australian Government to help stop Cambodia from implementing the law that they say will restrict their activities and freedom of speech.
The Cambodian government has completed a third draft of its new law which would make registrations mandatory for NGOs with no transparent appeals process.
It could also allow NGOs to be dissolved at the government's direction with no explanation and many clauses appear deliberately vague.
The government is currently targeting NGOs which have been speaking up for people being moved to make way for a railway project which is partly funded by AusAID and run by Australian company Toll Holdings.
In May, residents living alongside a disused section of railway line in Phnom Penh told the ABC of how they were treated by Cambodian authorities if they rejected a few hundred dollars to move.
One woman said she was told her house would be destroyed if she did not accept the compensation.
"They asked me to accept it by giving a thumb print. If I don't they will bulldoze my house," she said.
"They will hire the drug user to burn my house."
At the time both AusAID and Toll refused to be interviewed, and Peter Bloch from the Asian Development Bank, which also funds part of the project, refused to accept the residents' allegation of intimidation.
It has now emerged that in June a letter was sent by Cambodia's economy and finance minister to the prime minister requesting that "punitive action" be taken against NGOs Bridges Across Borders and STT that have been advocating for residents.
The letter stated the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had come under "political pressure" from the two organisations.
"Do not allow foreign NGOs to do advocacy work. Local NGOs who do advocacy work must not have foreigners involved or interfere," the letter said.
The bank has denied making a complaint to the government.
But the work of STT has now been suspended, at least temporarily, because - according to the government - it incited people to oppose national development.
STT spokeswoman Norah Lindstrom she believes there is a link between ADB and the letter.
"Certainly from what we have heard and seen of this letter it does seem to say that maybe the consultant has warned the government of the actions of NGOs on the railway project. So there seems to be a direct link to the ADB," she said.
"The letter itself was shown to us during a meeting at the minister of interior and parts of it were read to us as well."
"It's also referenced in our suspension letter."

Funding suspended

In September the World Bank suspended funding to Cambodia over land seizures around Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh.
Those people were affected both by the railway as well as a residential project.
The World Bank suspension followed intense advocacy on behalf of the residents by STT and Bridges Across Borders among others.
Human Rights Watch spokesman Phil Robertson says the Cambodian government's proposed NGO legislation is a crackdown on civil society.
"They say that they're trying to accomplish a regulatory end but it's becoming increasingly clear that this is more about restricting civil society, cracking down on civil society ... voices that question government policies or point out corrupt projects or land grabbing by government officials," he said.
"And we think that this is all about the continuing constriction of political space in Cambodia that has accelerated since the re-election of prime minister Hun Sen in 2008."
It is widely believed that NGOs have been a key factor in developing Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
The government's move to control them comes along with strengthened defamation laws and new restrictions on street protests.
Three weeks ago police, armed with AK47s, dispersed a human rights training event, the explanation: that the necessary permission to hold it had not been obtained.
An AusAID spokesperson says the Australian Government is closely monitoring the development of the NGO law and that the Australian Ambassador to Cambodia has made representations at senior levels of Cambodian government on at least seven occasions.
The spokesperson says the Australian Government's view is that an active civil society, where NGOs have the right to operate freely, makes an important contribution to the development process.

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