The NGO election consortium calling itself the “Situation Room” may be banned from future vote monitoring and the registration of its member NGOs investigated, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Wednesday, after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused the group of violating the law, colluding with the opposition and serving as a base for a “color revolution.”
Members of the group defended its neutrality and said it had not registered with the Interior Ministry, as is required of NGOs under the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (Lango), because it was a temporary gathering of like-minded NGOs rather than a fully structured organization.
Speaking at the CPP’s 66th anniversary celebrations on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich on Wednesday, the prime minister ordered Interior Minister Sar Kheng to investigate the Situation Room’s legal status under Lango after the group of 40 NGOs criticized the fairness of the June 4 commune elections.
“An issue that needs to be solved next is—what is the Situation Room?” Mr. Hun Sen asked. “In a few days, they made the election results have serious difficulties. Did the Situation Room register with the Interior Ministry?”
“Do they have a right to create a base like this?” he asked of the group’s election monitoring headquarters. “Or is this the common base for the principles of a color revolution?”
The group’s criticism of the election, especially pre-vote campaign activity, echoed concerns leveled by the CNRP, he said, suggesting collusion with the opposition.
“If they’re not legal, what have they been doing? How will they be punished?” he asked, urging Mr. Kheng to look into the group’s legality.
Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the ministry saw the coalition as an unregistered NGO, and would now investigate the registration of the member NGOs and call individuals in for questioning.
The Situation Room’s members, as listed on a news release earlier this month, are a roll call of the country’s most prominent civil society organizations (CSOs), including election NGOs the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections (Nicfec); rights groups Adhoc, Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights; labor rights NGO Central; and umbrella organization NGO Forum.
“It could be that we issue a letter to dissolve their activity to jointly monitor the next election,” General Sopheak said.
In a statement released on Saturday, the group was largely positive about the vote itself but said “significant irregularities” prior to June 4 meant that “elections in Cambodia cannot yet be considered free and fair.”
The group said political suppression of the opposition, threats of violence from ruling party leaders, biased courts and unequal media allotment had undermined the quality of the election.
Gen. Sopheak, who threatened unspecified action against CSOs in the run-up to the vote, rejected the findings and claimed they caused “social turmoil.”
In a statement jointly released on Wednesday by Comfrel and Nicfec, the two organizations did not mention Mr. Hun Sen’s speech, but described the Situation Room as a “neutral forum” organized by the two groups to supply election observers and evaluate vote results, among other tasks.
The consortium ended on Saturday, when it released its election findings, the statement said.
Lango requires all “domestic associations” to register with the ministry, a term it defines as “a membership organization…by natural persons or legal entities aiming at representing and protecting the interests of their members without generating or sharing profits.”
Sotheara Yoeurng, a law and monitoring officer with Comfrel, confirmed in a Facebook message that the group had not registered with the ministry, but said there was no need given its short mandate.
The group lacked an organizational structure, he said, and was only a gathering place for CSOs “who have like-mind.”
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said the Situation Room wouldn’t need to register if it had merely served as a gathering place for member organizations. But if it wanted to organize under a new name and put out statements, it should have registered, he said.
In the NGO law, “if we form a coalition, we should register.”
Comfrel’s Mr. Yoeurng disputed that logic.
“It’s a room or space for gathering ideas and opinions of CSOs to debate on elections matters,” he wrote. “It’s a collective opinion so we should put it together for a single statement.”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the CNRP’s steering committee, laughed when asked if his party had colluded with the forum, denying any secret cooperation.
Mr. Hun Sen “is used to accusing,” he said.