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Civic Groups Warned to ‘Readjust’ Their Work

The government says it needs the NGO law to better manage the thousands of organizations operating in the country, but critics say it will hamper their work and make it harder for smaller associations to form.

A coalition of non-governmental organizations says it received a warning from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “readjust” some of their work, following a controversy over land rights along a railway line development.

The NGO Forum said Monday it is preparing a response letter to the ministry, after it wrote a letter to the Asian Development Bank in 2010 warning of dangerous construction on a line slated for rehabilitation.

The latest row between the NGO sector and the government comes amid increased warnings that the government is moving to curb the influence of the country’s burgeoning civil society. A new law moving toward parliamentary debate has raised concerns that organizations critical of the government can be shut down or have their work impeded under ambiguous regulations.

Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it had warned NGO Forum, the Housing Rights Task Force, Bridges Across Borders and Sahmakum Teang Tnut, or STT, to rethink the way they worked with Cambodians whose lands are threatened by development.

Some of those same NGOs have given their support to a highly public land dispute in Phnom Penh over a development project at Boeung Kak lake. Residents there were recently promised a small plot of land on the development site after years of protest and only after the World Bank threatened to withdraw funding to the country if the problem was not addressed.

Koy Kuong said the four NGOs had written to complain to the ADB in October 2010 over the rehabilitation of a railway line in Battambang province, where two children were killed. “The four NGO representatives blamed the death of the two children on the government,” he said, calling the claim “false.”

STT, meanwhile, which works with poor communities on housing rights, has had its activities suspended by the Ministry of Interior, for “failing to modify its leadership” at the behest of the government.

Critics say the group was suspended for its work with the urban poor in Phnom Penh, who have proven a headache city officials and developers.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the STT suspension and the ministry warning to the four NGOs represented “pressure” on civil society.

“Some NGOs will begin to be afraid,” he said.

Tith Sothea, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, which is currently reviewing the latest NGO law, said the government “cannot accept” accusations it is trying to put pressure on the rights of non-governmental agencies.