Government claims group incited families to oppose railway; NGOs disagree
The government yesterday accused a land rights NGO it suspended earlier this month of inciting families to oppose a railway rehabilitation project expected to displace thousands of poor people.
Dated Saturday and posted to the Interior Ministry’s website, the statement takes aim at an open letter 40 non-government groups issued Friday condemning the government’s “arbitrary” decision to suspend fellow NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut on Aug 1.
“STT operated and incited people to oppose national development by the government in Kampot and in Phnom Penh in order to make the development partners suspend or stop the project to renovate the railroad,” the Interior Ministry statement said.
STT has been among the more outspoken groups regarding the negative affects of the railway renovation project. In November, the organization joined a statement blaming the government for the deaths of two young girls at a state-run relocation site for families displaced by the project because of the camp’s poor facilities.
Last month, the organization issued a report accusing the Inter-Ministerial Resettlement Committee of “systematically” undervaluing the land of the families slated for eviction by the railway renovation, threatening their chances of a fair pay-out.
In its statement Saturday, the Interior Ministry accused Sahmakum Teang Tnaut of failing to notify the government of numerous office changes, opening up a satellite office in Kampot without permission, and failing to follow through on promised corrections.
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Nuth Sa An also said the organization had urged families to oppose the railway project.
“They incited the people to not listen to the government. But the government needs the land to build the railroad,” he said. “It is not only for Cambodia, but for Singapore and China.”
Australia’s official aid agency AusAid, which is helping fund the railway project, has declined to comment on Sahmakum’s suspension.
Putu Kamayana, country director of the Asian Development Bank, another donor to the railway project, said he was “not aware” of any incitement on the Sahmakum’s part.
“STT has been working with us to monitor the implementation of the project, and we haven’t had any problems with that,” Mr Kamayana said.
Staff at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut have yet to comment on the suspension. But as they did Friday, other NGOs came to the group’s defense yesterday.
“It’s not fair to say STT provokes,” said Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force. “They are just helping the victims to raise their voice.”
If anything, he added, the government ought to be working with STT.
“They are not the enemy,” Mr Phearum said. “They are just trying to help…. They are real partners for the government.”
Brian Lund, East Asia director for Oxfam, agreed.
“Part of the role of civil society is to behave as a watchdog, to give a voice to people who are affected by government projects and may be displaced,” Mr Lund said.
“It’s not a question of provoking,” he said, so much as giving the families affected by the project a chance to join the debate about their future.
If Sahmakum committed some bureaucratic misstep as the Interior Ministry claimed, Mr Lund said the government should address the specific problem.
But to suspend the NGO’s entire operations, he said, and “to take away that opportunity for that community to have a say in that debate is the wrong move.”
To call Sahmakum’s work a provocation worthy of suspension was setting a very dangerous precedent in Cambodia, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“If they say like that, I think NGOs in the future cannot say anything,” Mr Sam Oeun said.
“It’s a sign of no freedom of expression anymore.”
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the Interior Ministry’s statement would only add to the chilling effect Sahmakum’s suspension will have on legitimate public critique.
“It says no one has the right to criticize the government. It’s too much,” said Mr Panha, who suspected that the move would scare into silence not only other NGOs, but media outlets and political opposition groups as well.
On Friday, 40 NGOs issued an open letter calling Sahmakum’s five-month suspension a thinly veiled attack on the NGO for its “legitimate work among urban poor communities” and demanded a reversal.
They also warned that the NGOs’ suspension was a sign of things to come under the country’s pending NGO law, which they have criticized for failing to spell out what reasons the government could use to shut down an NGO or reject its registration application.
Many fear the government will use the law to shutter groups they simply don’t like.
The NGO draft law is now before the Council of Ministers.