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Crackdown on critical groups confirms civil society fears of forthcoming NGO law

Phnom Penh, 18 August: Members of the Prey Lang network took part in a “pray long for Prey Lang” celebration, seen here, before being detained and questioned by the authorities for handing out flyers about deforestation
Phnom Penh, 18 August: Members of the Prey Lang network took part in a “pray long for Prey Lang” celebration, seen here, before being detained and questioned by the authorities for handing out flyers about deforestation

Prey Lang Network

Organisations critical of a government project to rebuild a railway link that could displace thousands of families have been suspended or told to toe the government line, reports the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). Critics say it's a sign of what's to come if a controversial bill that aims to regulate the country's non-governmental groups gets passed.

NGO Forum, an umbrella group of 88 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) whose donors include Christian Aid and Oxfam, confirmed it had received a "warning letter" from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over its concerns relating to communities affected by a railway rehabilitation project linking Phnom Penh to Thailand, which is funded by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID. The government said the group had made "false" and "unfair" claims about the deaths of two children relocated by the railway.

In a meeting last week, the Foreign Affairs Ministry accused NGO Forum and international organisation Bridges Across Borders of inciting families to oppose the project. The groups were told to "readjust their work in order to work closely with the government," reports CCHR.

The claims come on the heels of the government's suspension of land rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which had been critical of government-backed evictions as a result of the railway project. According to STT, a higher number of affected households than officially reported will be displaced and probably at unfair compensation rates.

Earlier this month, 130 Cambodian groups - including CCHR - issued a joint statement condemning the suspension, calling it arbitrary and illegal.

The groups say the suspension is a "preview into the future of government control over civil society organisations and associations" under the draft law on associations and NGOs, which is on the verge of being passed.

The law has been widely criticised for imposing registration on grassroots movements and community-based organisations and the lack of transparency in the assessment process. STT has been told it can seek reinstatement when the law comes into force.

"This law will be a disaster for freedom of expression in Cambodia. Sadly, it's clear this is precisely the intent of the highest levels of government, who don't want to face any sort of criticism from anyone," Human Rights Watch told the "Phnom Penh Post".

Human Rights Watch has also warned that the government's moves will have a chilling effect on the media. "Information sources for the media among local associations will likely dry up because those association officials will rightly worry that the government could shut them down overnight," said Human Rights Watch.

In another sign of the government's increasing intolerance, more than 100 activists working to protect the large Prey Lang forest in northeastern Cambodia were detained last week in the capital, Phnom Penh, for handing out "save the forest" flyers, reports the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). Authorities said the flyers could "disrupt social order." Some activists were held for questioning and "re-education," reports CCHR.

Villagers living near the forest, which spans over four provinces, say their livelihoods are being threatened by deforestation and continuous government concessions to private rubber and other companies. They maintain that the forest is critical to the preservation of wildlife and flora that are sacred to indigenous communities.

One of the villagers, Svay Phoeun, said major development loans from foreign aid and international banks were potentially driving some of the destruction of the forest.

"Once again we see the phrase 'disruption of social order' being used to justify cracking down on freedom of expression," said CCHR. "The real threat here is to the elite's ability to exploit Cambodia's natural resources. And the real threat to social order is the disregard for the homeland and livelihood of hundreds of ordinary citizens."

Villagers have since delivered a petition with around 300 signatures to embassies, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank calling for their intervention.

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