Several civil society organizations and their employees, including the leaders of rights NGOs Licadho and Adhoc, are under watch by the Interior Ministry for allegedly aiding the CNRP, and will face legal action if the allegations prove true, a ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
As the NGO leaders denied the charge, a CPP spokesman said any ministry investigation would be a “big mistake.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said it had not yet put any NGOs or civil society organizations on the blacklist—referring to a list the government uses to initiate formal investigations—but “we will take action if we find those organizations are working to serve the opposition party.”
“We will not take action at this time because the activities of those organizations are not so serious,” he added. “But we will take action immediately if the activities of those people affect the national interest.”
While General Sopheak did not name all the organizations in question, he said they included Adhoc and Licadho.
“Those two organizations are under investigation because most of their activities are working to serve the opposition party,” he said, adding that while the organizations were “good,” their leaders and some employees were circumventing the law.
Licadho’s director Naly Pilorge yesterday said she was unaware of any investigation into the organization and denied the accusations.
“As a human rights NGO, pre & post election work has been and still is a normal part of our work,” she wrote in a message. “Our work is to provide services to victims of human rights violations…including cases that are of [a] civil & political nature.”
Representatives from Adhoc could not immediately be reached for comment. The organization’s director, Thun Saray, fled to Canada last fall as a court case saw four of his employees jailed for bribery charges widely seen as politically motivated.
Gen. Sopheak said yesterday that Mr. Saray’s flight proved his guilt, and that the ministry’s observations were prompted by criticism from civil society organizations over the ink that will be used in Sunday’s commune elections. The National Election Committee admitted it purchased the ink even though samples could be erased using a hair care product, raising concerns from election monitors over potential double-voting.
Repeating a favorite government talking point, Gen. Sopheak said the NGOs were working at the behest of foreign donors to support the opposition and that the ministry would take unspecified legal action based on the recently passed Law on Associations and NGOs after Election Day if the illicit activities continued.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he was unaware of the ministry’s plans, but claimed the government had no plans to investigate NGOs carrying out their usual work.
“I think that the Interior Ministry is making a big mistake if they are now doing an investigation because it would affect the rights of those organizations…and it is contrary to the law,” he said.
In the same breath, however, Mr. Eysan agreed that some NGOs were supporting the CNRP and said some of those organizations were scared by the ministry “because they realized their activities are wrong and contrary to the law.”
NGOs in Cambodia have been treading carefully since the passage last year of the new law, which critics said gave the government sweeping powers to revoke the registration of organizations found to have threatened political stability or be operating with a political bias.
None of the NGOs reporters spoke to was contacted directly by the ministry.
Sotheara Yoeurng, the law and monitoring officer at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the group had carefully trained observers to avoid partisanship, and called on the government to exercise its powers fairly in the run-up to the vote.
“We are working to promote free and fair elections, peace and development in Cambodia,” he said. “It’s our main purpose.”
Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the organization respected the law.
“In previous elections also, the Interior Ministry wanted to keep their eye on NGOs working on the election,” he said.
Some of the government’s fears of foreign-funded NGOs “might have merit,” said Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, saying that the U.S. would be equally wary of Chinese-funded organizations meddling in politics in Washington.
But he said the public was likely suspicious of the ministry’s motives.