Not long ago, Sim Pov, a representative of 69 families from Kratie province, came to Phnom Penh to meet with urban housing rights protesters. He wanted to learn from them how he could organize his own community, which is locked in a land dispute with a Vietnamese rubber company.
But with a new law that would govern such an association now passed through the National Assembly and Senate, Sim Pov has found himself potentially unable to form a simple community group.
The police chief of his home district, Snuol, recently phoned him to ask whether he had registered with the Ministry of Interior for his activities. He had not.
The call from the police and his inability to easily form a group are the kinds of issues at the heart of complaints about the new Law on Associations and NGOs: that it will curtail basic rights of assembly through red tape, giving authorities a tool to prevent people from coming together in the face of major problems.
Sim Pov had informally created his community in April, with the support of villagers around Snuol district’s Khsoem commune. He formed the group to find solutions to a land dispute that began with an economic concession for the rubber plantation in 2014. Some 70 families are involved in the dispute, with another village representative, a woman named Lok Sopha, over 250 hectares of land.
Sim Pov says Lok Sopha colluded with authorities to break the land up into plots and to divide these plots among people who are not from the village and do not live there. The other villagers agreed they needed to form a group with a leader to represent them in this dispute.
Now, though, it looks like that may not happen, thanks to the police anticipation of the new law, which is awaiting a signature by King Norodom Sihamoni before it is enacted.
When the police chief called, “he asked me to ask for legal permission at the Ministry of Interior,” Sim Pov said. He was also instructed to inform his local commune or village authorities about his forming the association. “So this caused trouble for me,” Sim Pov said. “I don’t know how to get permission.”
He’s also afraid of what could happen to him. “If we are having a dispute with the authorities, and if go to ask their permission, what are they going to do with me?” he asked. “It’s impossible.”
Num Srun, police chief of Snuol district, said Sim Pov’s Peam Por O’Bei Community must receive legal documents from the local authorities and must register with the Ministry of Interior.
“Over the past days, I called to review the documents, but they haven’t submitted any documents to the authorities for forming the group,” he said. “We just told them to do something by legal means, meaning they should be recognized by the district and commune and registered at the Ministry of Interior before operation.”
Lok Sopha, the other named party in the dispute, said Sim Pov and his community are trying to “oppose the government” and cause “instability” in the commune. She denied colluding with authorities to divvy out land plots to non-residents and said she is worried about Sim Pov’s community group. “I’m worried that what he did can cause chaos and insecurity in the commune.”
Phlong Khen, chief of Khsoem commune, told VOA Khmer that the communal authorizes have not taken sides in the dispute.
Meanwhile, Sia Phearum, from the Human Rights Task Force, said the dispute underscores the complexity of registration demands under the new law. Such local communities should not have to be done under the law. “I think this community is not necessarily required to register,” he said.
“When a law is made without broad and thorough consultation, it offers a chance to local authorities to use the controversial law to press their own people, while they don’t take care of solving the land dispute embroiling them,” he said.