Minister Insists Community Groups Are Exempt From NGO Law

The Interior Ministry has reiterated its claims that a new law requiring NGOs and associations to register with the government does not apply to small community-based groups, despite recent efforts by police to apply the legislation to a group of families in Kratie province.

With the law itself short on definitions, officials repeatedly assured critics that the new rules—which took effect last month—would not apply to grassroots groups whose work focused on the concerns of their immediate communities. But when police in Kratie’s Snuol district started insisting last month that a group of 71 families involved in a local land dispute had to register because of the law, the critics feared their concerns were coming true.

In a letter dated Monday, replying to a request for clarification from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Interior Minister Sar Kheng assured those critics that the government’s assurances about small groups were honest.

“In accordance with Article 4 of this law, its scope doesn’t cover community-based organizations that do not have enough [structure] to comply with Article 6 and Article 7 of this law,” the minister wrote, referring to provisions on filing statutes, leadership biographies and other paperwork.

In his letter, Mr. Kheng said the 71 families in Snuol did not have to register under the NGO law. But he said the request from local police that they register was “correct in principle because indigenous communities can only get communal [land] ownership if the communities register with the Ministry of Interior in compliance with the 2001 Land Law.”

To apply for communal land titles, designed to protect indigenous communities from private developers, groups must register with the government. However, Hak Nhen, a representative of the 71 families, said the families were not minorities and were not seeking a communal land title.

“We have repeatedly asked local authorities to issue us individual titles, not a collective title, because we are Cambodians, not indigenous minorities,” he said Wednesday.

Chhay Chhunly, the coordinator of CCHR’s Fundamental Freedoms Project, said the minister’s clarification would help, but that she expected local authorities to continue abusing the NGO law.

“We can use this letter to advocate if this kind of an issue happens again,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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