Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak’s pre-election warning that some NGOs and their leaders were being watched for illegally aiding the opposition was a threat designed to frighten them, General Sopheak said on Wednesday, as civil society groups warily condemned the statements.
“I just said the Interior Ministry started an investigation because we wanted to threaten those organizations to be scared,” he said. “Otherwise they will do anything they want that breaks the law.”
Last Thursday, Gen. Sopheak said that a number of NGOs and their leaders, including those of human rights groups Adhoc and Licadho, were under watch for aiding the opposition party and would be formally put on a “blacklist” for investigation after the election if they continued to violate the law.
But on Wednesday, Gen. Sopheak chastised a reporter for following up on his statements, saying that the election had been free of incriminating incidents.
“Why do you ask about this case?” he asked. “The commune elections are over and nothing happened to those organizations.”
“You gave me this question in order to create problems for people and to start arguments,” he said.
Though some election monitors said that Gen. Sopheak’s warning added to a slew of government threats before the election, Hang Puthea, spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC), said it fell outside of the group’s mandate.
“I don’t want to give a comment for this case because it is the police’s job to provide security for the commune elections and it is not involved in the NEC’s affairs,” he said. “I don’t think that he violated the election law because this is a threat outside [of the election] atmosphere.”
NGOs condemned the threat but said it was nothing new.
Pen Bonnar, a senior investigator for Adhoc, said the organization had long been a target of government officials because it exposed their ill deeds.
“We have received many threats in the past,” he said. “The activity of our organization has affected the honor of the CPP and caused the ruling party to lose popularity…. I think that using threatening words is a crime because an organization has received a threat of injustice.”
Still, Mr. Bonnar said the group had no plans to file a criminal complaint.
Licadho director Naly Pilorge declined to comment.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor group Central, paused after a reporter repeated Gen. Sopheak’s explanation for last week’s warning, saying that it rendered him speechless.
“It makes no sense in a democratic country [to] threaten civil society,” he said. And the threat, if executed by the book, would also have to take aim at NGOs who nakedly support the CPP, he said.
“We believe that what we are doing is just supporting the victim,” he said.
NGOs have faced increased pressure since the 2015 passage of the Law on Associations and NGOs, which empowered the ministry to deregister NGOs that violate neutrality rules or threaten stability.
Meanwhile, four Adhoc employees and one former employee have been detained without charges for more than a year in a bribery case widely seen as politically motivated.
Those cases and the government’s threats caught the notice of the U.N. Human Rights Office for South-East Asia, which on Wednesday called for an improved atmosphere for civil society in a post-election statement.
“In particular, the politicized threats and arrests of civil society actors and members of opposition parties should cease, so that, in their respective capacities, they may continue to play their legitimate role in a democratic Cambodia, particularly ahead of next year’s election,” the statement said. “The release of the ‘Adhoc 5’ and [Boeng Kak activist] Tep Vanny would be a crucial test of that space.”