Interior Minister Sar Kheng took aim at civil society on Tuesday night, warning NGOs to comply with the law or face legal action, at the same time the ministry ordered the ad hoc election monitoring group the Situation Room to cease any future monitoring activities.
On Wednesday, a regional Amnesty International leader called the actions against the Situation Room “a blatant attempt to silence the legitimate work of civil society in Cambodia” and urged the government to “withdraw the restrictive law on NGOs from 2015.”
In an announcement posted to the ministry’s website on Tuesday night and dated the same day, Mr. Kheng said “some associations and NGOs” had ignored the implementation of the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organizations, or Lango, a controversial law that drew widespread condemnation from civil society when it was passed in 2015.
Mr. Kheng highlighted Article 10 of the law, which requires NGOs to provide their bank account information to the Interior Ministry and Finance Ministry within 30 days of registering. Mr. Kheng said NGOs had until the end of September to provide updated information.
He also urged NGOs to send a report of their annual activity and financial statement to both ministries by the end of February, as stipulated in Article 25 of Lango.
Groups also should inform the Interior Ministry of changes in bylaws, headquarters, bank accounts and leadership, and should provide documentation within 30 days of receiving any donation, Mr. Kheng said, citing other provisions of the law.
The measures were designed to “promote rule of law” and any NGOs who failed to comply would “receive measures according to the law,” Mr. Kheng wrote.
Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak described the letter as a reminder to NGOs that should already know better after registering with the ministry, and reiterated that those who did not file the proper documentation on deadline would face legal action.
“In this case, we need to file [the case] to the court,” he said.
Gen. Sopheak declined to elaborate on which sections of the law had been violated and by whom, and what action violators would face.
“Please look at the law,” he said. “Reporters should be diligent.”
According to the law, repeated violations of Article 10 and parts of Article 25 by a group will see it removed from the NGO register.
The ministry also posted letters on its website addressed to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), which organized the temporary association, the Situation Room. The letters ordered an end to its activities.
Mr. Kheng alleged that the Situation Room had violated Lango when it put out a statement voicing criticisms of some elements of the June 4 commune elections, which the minister claimed “had no legal value and does not reflect on neutrality” toward political parties required of NGOs under Article 24 of the law.
Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed last week that the Situation Room’s criticisms were very close to those offered by the opposition, suggesting collusion.
Mr. Hun Sen’s comments were echoed by Gen. Sopheak on Wednesday in an interview with Voice of Democracy, but refuted by Yoeurng Sotheara, the law and monitoring officer at Comfrel.
Mr. Sotheara said the Situation Room had drawn on international election standards to reach its conclusion that the elections fell short of being completely free and fair, and had also struck some positive notes about progress made since 2013.
Comfrel planned on carrying on its election monitoring duties for next year’s vote but would lose out on the added manpower and resources that coordination with other NGOs brought, he said.
“We want to discuss with the government…what we misunderstand about our performance,” he said.
In a statement last week, the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors called on the government “to stop pressuring citizen election monitoring organizations and their leaders.”
Josef Benedict, the regional deputy campaigns director for Amnesty International, on Wednesday called on the ministry to immediately reverse its ban.
“It is chilling that the government is already moving to restrict public debate, even though the general election is more than a year away,” he wrote in an email on Wednesday.
Laws like Lango and heavy-handed court actions “have left the civil society sector extremely vulnerable, where many NGO workers live with the daily reality of arbitrary threats to their freedoms,” he wrote.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, admitted the group had not adhered to the reporting requirements of Lango but said its financial reports were posted to its website.
“The provisions of the LANGO were widely criticised even before their enactment for their failure to meet international standards for freedom of association and expression,” she wrote in an email.
“We are concerned that these provisions are now being applied apparently in reaction to the legitimate election monitoring activities of civil society.”