Officials in Kratie province are insisting that a small group of families involved in a local land dispute register with the Interior Ministry or be “punished,” realizing some rights groups’ worst fears about the days-old Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations.
The new law, which the king made official on Wednesday, requires all NGOs and associations to register with the state in order to operate. During a workshop on a draft of the law last month, government officials assured critics that small, community-based groups focused only on local concerns would be exempt. But the law’s failure to clearly define such groups left critics worried that authorities would apply the law inconsistently, and use it to target groups it wants to muzzle.
On Sunday, the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) said that police in Kratie were proving the critics right.
A group of 69 families in Snuol district’s Khsoem commune banded together late last year to protect their rights to a roughly 250-hectare plot of land the government has set aside for them against another group of 35 families they accuse of interloping.
“Our previous concerns that this law would violate the right to association has become true with this case,” said Long Kimheang, a senior officer and administrative coordinator for HRTF.
Sim Pov, a representative of the 69 families, said Sunday that he and a fellow representative were called in by district police chief Nom Srun on Saturday and told to register the group of families with the Interior Ministry before taking any further action.
“The authorities told us they were worried that this community could cause unrest and violence when the officials go to the area to start measuring and allocating the land,” Mr. Pov said. “They told us like they wanted to intimidate us, saying we’d be punished if we were stubborn.
“They asked us to sign a contract promising to stop all protest activity until we are recognized,” he said. “But I didn’t sign and demanded that they show us the law that requires us to do so.”
Mr. Srun, the police chief, confirmed that he had instructed the families to register because of the new NGO law.
“Yes,” he said. “They need to make a proposal for recognition of their community with the commune and the province before listing with the Interior Ministry.
“They said they are a community, but they don’t have any documents and formal legal papers, because they could block authorities from settling the land dispute soon,” he said.
Ms. Kimheang of HRTF said the 69 families should clearly be exempt from the law by the government’s own explanation during the drafting process. She accused the authorities in Snuol of deliberately misusing the law to push ahead with their plans to allocate land to all 104 families.
“It’s the first showcase of the NGO law’s negative impacts,” she said. “The government wants to show the people that they cannot form communities by accusing them of inciting illegal protests.”