The head of a Cambodian community organization that promotes land ownership has complained of intimidation after attempting to visit farmers near the country’s border with Vietnam.
The claims come more than two years after the government passed a controversial law regarding the conduct of non-governmental organizations in the country, which Theng Savoen, president of the Coalition of Cambodia Farmer Community (CCFC), says is being misused.
Savoen said his organization, which advocates for the rights of farmers, was blocked by the authorities during visits to Takeo, Tbong Khmum and Svay Rieng provinces since last month, which he feels is a violation of the law.
He added that the tense political situation had allowed local authorities to abuse the law and had led to a climate of mistrust, where groups such as the CCFC were seen as inciting anti-government sentiment.
“We think that freedom of assembly and the freedom of association in Cambodia are restricted and are declining by the use of the system of the law on associations and NGOs. On the other hand, we see that the authorities’ awareness of the law is not really clear, meaning they often prohibited us, asking us to provide notice and to get legal permits,” he said, adding that when they did apply for permission their applications were turned down.
“We think that there is probably misunderstanding from the authorities over our association, which according to rumors, was said to be opposing [the government] or working to instigate the people to stage a rebellion. This is not true,” he added.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, denied the allegations.
“I don’t know if they understand it or not, but I believe that in our Cambodia if we asked for permission…there will be harmony. But if we act boastfully against other people while walking, there will be no food to eat,” he said.
He added that the authorities would not ban any association from conducting activities if the group received permission from the authorities in advance.
However, a leading human rights worker estimated that the restrictions on assembly were set to increase in the run-up to the July national election.
“I think it will not be relaxed if we look at the symptoms from now on. Especially, the gathering and rallies of civil society groups,” Am Sam Ath, chief of the investigation unit of local rights group Licadho, told VOA Khmer.
“Now we see that some civil society organizations that went down to work in the communities found it difficult to gather or rally their members or communities in order to conduct training,” he added.