Legal education for Prey Long forest community branded ‘incitement’
Kompong Thom provincial authorities have threatened to shut down two NGOs who have been providing free legal education to poor villagers in the province, accusing the groups of fomenting rural unrest against private investors.
The NGOs, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and the Natural Resource Protection Group, said they would hold a workshop with villagers on Wednesday despite the threats by authorities who have branded their community legal education work “incitement.”
The threats against the two groups, who are part of efforts to save the Prey Long forest from destruction, come amid growing concerns that the government is focused on reducing the operating space of civil society actors. They also follow closely on the heels of the suspension of a land rights group last month.
A proposed law to regulate the NGO sector is also being viewed as a tool to muzzle groups the government deems obstreperous.
“We found that their activities included acts to incite citizens to oppose government [approved] land concessions for [a] Vietnamese rubber company,” provincial police chief Phan Sopheng said.
Mr Sopheng said that officials in Dang Kambit commune filed a complaint with police against the two groups over a two-day workshop they had organized with villagers on Aug 9.
Claiming that the meeting didn’t have official permission, Mr Sopheng said police have concluded that such activities “contradict” a government requirement that registered NGOs cooperate with local authorities.
If the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and the Natural Resource Protection Group continue their activities, Mr Sopheng said the Ministry of Interior would be notified “in order to seek their suspension.”
Police will also take direct legal action under the Penal Code, he warned.
“They are here to cause a small number of villagers to stand up,” said Dang Kambit commune chief Chhoy Mab, who took part in a police operation to shut down the last legal education workshop on Aug 9.
Mr Mab said he had filed the police complaint against the groups as their work was undermining his authority.
“Since their arrival I face difficulties to lead the community,” he said.
The two groups, Mr Mab said, “make false allegations of illegal logging against authorities and government…. We are ready to break them up.”
CCHR Project Coordinator Chhim Savuth said the workshops had not violated any laws, but had merely served to develop the villagers understanding of their legal rights.
“We never incite citizens to oppose government development,” Mr Savuth said, adding that provincial authorities have been informed of the planned workshop in Dang Kambit commune on Wednesday.
Since March, hundreds of indigenous minority Kuy villagers have been trying to stop the CRCK firm from developing a 6,000-hectare rubber plantation, granted to the company as a land concession by the government.
The Kuy activists claim the company has cleared a part of the Prey Long forest where they had traditionally cultivated resin trees for their daily livelihoods.
About 250,000 people in four provinces rely for income on the 750,000-hectare Prey Long forest, Cambodia’s largest remaining lowland evergreen forest.
Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, said illegal logging around the CRCK concession was widespread and illegally logged trees were being sold to the rubber company, which was transporting timber out of its concession.
Mr Wutty alleged that the complaining commune chief, Mr Mab, was allowing logging and he feared that the legal education workshop would galvanize villagers’ actions against illegal practices.
“They worry about the communities fighting back,” Mr Wutty said.
“I came here on the request of the community … to teach the laws about protecting resin trees,” he said, adding that villagers were desperate to stop the felling of the resin trees.
Land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which has been suspended since Aug 1, yesterday publicly rejected the accusations by the Interior Ministry that it had incited families to oppose a railway rehabilitation project.
It said in a statement that it had conducted “technical research on resettlement impacts” of the project that would displace thousands of villagers across Cambodia, adding that it had called for a suspension of the resettlement “to ensure people affected by the project are not harmed.”
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Nuth Sa An, who suspended Sahmakum, said yesterday that in case of new complaints filed against NGOs the ministry would talk to all parties involved.
“We first re-advise several times,” before taking action, he said.
(Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze)