Government Suspends Land Rights NGO

Ministry, land rights group offer few details

The Interior Ministry has suspended a well-known land rights NGO that has been critical of government-backed evictions, including the rehabilitation of a railway link that could displace thousands of poor families, a ministry official said yesterday.

Interior Ministry Secretary of State Nuth Sa An said the ministry had sent Sahmakum Teang Tnaut a letter several weeks ago ordering the organization to suspend work because it had failed to heed government warnings regarding a violation it had allegedly committed. Mr Sa An declined to say what the violation was and could not re­member when exactly the letter was sent.

“It is only one organization—it is Sahmakum Teang Tnaut. When they commit wrongdoing, [we] suspend them,” he said. “We educated them several times, but they did not listen.”

Nora Lindstrom, a program de­velopment manager for the organization and a member of the group’s executive management team, confirmed receiving a letter re­cently from the Interior Ministry but re­fused to comment on its contents.

Ms Lindstrom warned of a lawsuit if an article was published on the shutdown, and also threatened to cut all future communications with the newspaper. Ms Lindstrom claimed that reporting on the suspension would put thousands of people in danger, but she would not explain who was in danger or why.

Other NGOs contacted about the suspension said they had seen the letter sent to STT, but declined to comment because the issue was too sensitive.

Sahmakum Teang Tnaut has for several years spoken out strongly against evictions in Phnom Penh and provincial areas, and has published several critical reports on the subject.

Most recently, the organization has been one of the more vocal critics of the government’s plans to rehabilitate a dilapidated rail link connecting Phnom Penh to Thailand, and slammed both the government and its donors for failing to adequately consider the thousands of households who live along the rail line and face being displaced by the rehabilitation. In a July report, the organization said the government’s Inter-Ministerial Resettlement Committee had undervalued the land families living on or next to the train tracks would be giving up, raising fears that the families would be short-changed when compensated.

In November, STT also joined other NGOs in blaming the death of two young girls on the poor facilities at a resettlement site for families displaced by the rail project in Battambang City.

As for STT’s future, the Interior Ministry’s Mr Sa An left the matter open.

“I did not mention a limit” on the suspension, he said. “We will let them register when the [NGO] law goes into effect.”

That NGO law, now awaiting approval from the Council of Ministers, would require all NGOs and associations in the country to register with the government and submit annual financial reports.

But hundreds of NGOs have warned that the rules-with their demands for detailed fiscal and staff records-would overburden the smallest of them and cut civil society groups off at their roots. And by demanding that a group have at least 11 members before it can even register, they say the law would violate the country’s own constitutional guarantee to the right of association.

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