With the month-long campaign period set to begin Thursday, Ratanakkiri governor Pao Horm Phan has issued a directive calling for all provincial authorities and ordinary citizens to cease attending meetings and workshops organized by NGOs until the national election has been held on July 28.
The letter, dated June 13, was sent to officials at all levels of provincial government and has drawn criticism from a human rights advocate in the province who said that the decision was meant to avoid discussions between villagers and local authorities about contentious issues such as land grabbing.
“During the period described above [June 27 to July 28], provincial hall forbids 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,” the letter signed by Mr. Horm Phan states.
According to the letter, the move is necessary “because it allows local authorities to have enough time to perform work and allow people to have the chance to exercise their political rights.”
Mr. Horm Phan said Tuesday that, despite explicit wording to the contrary in his written order, the directive was not meant to prevent NGOs from holding public meetings. Instead, he said, the ban is to ensure that provincial officials are free to serve the public and voters when political parties campaigned in their village.
“During this season, government officials—especially local authorities—are busy with distributing their election platform and disseminating election information to local voters,” Mr. Horm Phan said.
“The commune chiefs in particular have to stay in their office for issues” related to voter identification, he said, adding that ordinary people should also stay put near their homes.
“During the election campaign, people should stay in their village rather than going to attend meetings in other provinces. If villagers are not in the province, for whom are the political parties campaigning?” he asked.
Pen Bonnar, a longtime resident of Ratanakkiri and senior investigator for rights group Adhoc on land rights and natural resources, said the ban impinged on freedom of association. It also lets local officials off the hook during a period of time when their constituents should be able to ask them about their policies and performance in a public setting, Mr. Bonnar said.
“There is no law banning us from organizing events with participation from local villagers,” he said.
However, National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that the governor’s ban did not violate any laws, and, he maintained, was necessary to prevent NGOs from competing with political parties for the attention of people in Ratanakkiri.
“The announcement is not against any laws because the provincial authorities just advise the subordinates under their jurisdiction,” he said.
“[Generally], banning people [from participating in NGO meetings] is not right, but in some cases it is necessary to do so,” Mr. Nytha said, adding that if villagers were attending an NGO event they might miss important information about political parties that could inform their vote.