Cambodian NGOs seek Canadian help

  • September 21, 2011

OTTAWA - An alliance of Cambodian advocacy groups has asked Canada to urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to rescind a proposed law that would severely restrict the work of non-governement organizations in that country.

A representative of the civil society groups engaged in democracy building, land reform and human rights in Cambodia came to Ottawa Sept. 14 to appeal for help in preventing a law that will require Cambodian NGOs to register with the state, allowing the government to restrict or shut down NGOs without an appeals process.

“The law is not passed yet but we have already seen how it will work,” said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of Cambodia’s NGO Forum, an umbrella group representing 87 NGOs, various civil society groups and about 200 additional members.

Some groups have received notices of suspension, others have been informed of restrictions and other groups have been warned they could be charged with inciting people to oppose the government, Chhith said.

NGO Forum is an overseas partner of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P), which is funding a democracy building project in Cambodia. Chhith attended meetings at the Department of Foreign and International Affairs (DFAIT) accompanied by D&P’s Asia program officer Geneviève Talbot. They said the meetings went well, and DFAIT officials were already aware of the situation in Cambodia because CIDA funds development projects there.

The law threatens a civil society sector that has grown increasingly vibrant over the past two decades, Chhith said. The NGOs have been working to rebuild Cambodia after the devastating impact of the Khmer Rouge and the one-party Communist rule of Pol Pot that resulted in the genocide of about two million people.

One of the key areas of reform is in restoring land registration after the Khmer Rouge seized all land for the state, Chhith said.

Many people were evicted from their land and have returned to their villages to find other people living on land their families owned.

Compounding the problem, the government is giving land concessions to mining companies and agricultural concerns wishing to establish plantations for products such as sugar cane, he said. Most Cambodians still live in rural areas and the poor and marginalized need help speaking up regarding land grants that may violate their rights, harm the environment or lead to human rights abuses.   

NGOs have been asking the government to compensate those who will lose land due to concessions, Talbot said.

Chhith came to Canada to attend the CIVICUS World Assembly World Alliance for Citizen Participation World Assembly Sept. 9-12 in Montreal, where D&P is headquartered.

D&P joins 15 other Catholic NGOs represented by CIDSE in urging Western governments to oppose the threats to civil society in Cambodia. In a Sept. 9 open letter from Brussels, CIDSE and APRODEV, an ecumenical network of development and human rights  organizations,  spoke of the need to ensure guarantees of “international human rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to operate freely without unwarranted state interference.”

The letter noted that in 2009, a new Penal Code made defamation subject to criminal prosecution and noted the law has been used to “curb freedom of expression.”

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