National Election Committee (NEC) Secretary-General Tep Nytha yesterday defended an order banning NGOs from holding meetings with villagers in Ratanakkiri province during the election period, saying that such meetings would prevent people from missing out on important campaign messages.
The directive was sent to officials at all levels of provincial government by Ratanakkiri provincial governor Pao Horm Phan on June 13, and prohibits “local authorities at the city, district, commune and village level, and people, from attending all workshops, meetings and field trips held by any non-government organization.”
Speaking at a press conference at the NEC’s headquarters on the first official day of the election campaign Thursday, Mr. Nytha said he had been in touch with the provincial election committee in Ratanakkiri to discuss the matter, and that he ultimately agreed with it in principle.
“Please look at the actual situation,” he told a room packed with reporters and observers. “There are not many people there. If NGOs are competing to take the people to their meetings, for example, 50 people from one commune join a meeting, then there won’t be anyone listening to the campaign and the policies of the parties,” he said.
“So far, there haven’t been any NGO meetings that have been interrupted,” he added.
Pen Bonnar, provincial monitor for rights group Adhoc, said he believed there was more to the ban and that he and other rights groups have felt mounting tension recently between the authorities and rights groups in the area, which has been the setting for some of the country’s most protracted land disputes.
“We’re not holding meetings or working every day for 30 days, and I’m sure the political parties do not campaign every single day for 30 days either.” Mr. Bonnar said.
“The pressure is not just during this campaign period. It’s been like this even before that. It shows that the authorities are scared since they have not solved people’s land disputes. When they file a complaint, the authorities do not solve their problems. So they’re scared of the people’s reactions.”