The surprise leap of Chhay Thy, a prominent human rights worker in Ratanakkiri province, to the ruling party this month was preceded by two other high-level NGO officials in the province resigning to work in government in the past year, a series of moves seen by some as a growing trend.
The two other officials are Meach Mean, the former director of 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN), a local NGO working with dam-affected communities in the northeast, and Tep Borin, was the organization’s provincial coordinator in Ratanakkiri, an NGO working with villages in the province to secure communal land titles.
Both are now working for the Environment Ministry in Ratanakkiri.
Their resignations indicate the narrowing of space for NGOs in the province to work with and advocate for indigenous groups, said Dave Hubble, a researcher working with several NGOs there.
“We’re seeing an intellectual shift,” Mr. Hubble said.
Until recently, rights workers in the province had rallied around two major causes: fighting for communal titles for indigenous communities and resisting the construction of the controversial Lower Sesan 2 dam.
“The whole communal land registration thing has turned out a fiasco. The dam got built,” Mr. Hubble said.
“With the few NGOs I’m working with now—it’s mostly a question of trying to secure what’s left, to try for locally-based sustainable businesses,” he said. “This, as opposed to trying to take back what’s left.”
To others, however, the shift was less about dwindling possibilities than a slackening of will.
Pen Bonnar, formerly a coordinator for Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said the series of resignations showed a loss of the fighting spirit among Ratanakkiri’s NGO community.
“If we talk about the skill of NGO workers in Ratanakkiri, they are able and have the technical know-how. But they are doing their work just to get a salary. They do not ever confront the government,” he said.
Mr. Bonnar, who moved to Phnom Penh to be a senior investigator for Adhoc following years of threats related to his work, said the move of rights workers to join the government could boost the ruling party in upcoming elections.
“And it’s not just them,” he said of Mr. Thy, Mr. Borin and Mr. Mean. “There are a lot of other officials who have gone over as well, just not as well-known.”
Contacted on Sunday, Mr. Borin confirmed that he had left ICSO for a job in the province’s environment department, but declined to comment on his reasons.
Mr. Mean said he felt he had little choice. After resigning from 3SPN to briefly care for his ailing parents, he said he had been unable to find an NGO that had the money to hire him.
“I tried to find another job in an organization and I couldn’t,” he said. “A lot of organizations didn’t have funding to take me on. Many are running out.”
Having helped organize many of the demonstrations and resistance efforts of the hundreds of families whose homes are now being flooded by the Lower Sesan 2 dam, Mr. Mean remarked that 3SPN’s role was changing as well.
“The water [of the Sesan river] was closed on the 7th of July,” he said, and the flooding of the reservoir has begun.
As for his current job, Mr. Mean said he liked it.
“I’m happy,” he said. “I like doing any work to help conserve the environment.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Tep Borin was executive director of the Indigenous Community Support Organization. He was the organization’s provincial coordinator in Ratanakkiri. His name was also misspelled.
© 2017, Aisha Down. All rights reserved.