Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Thursday reminded civil society groups of their duty to respect the integrity of the July 29 national elections, saying the government would not tolerate attempts by them to “participate in a colour revolution”.
He was speaking at a forum organised by the Ministry of Interior and attended by around 400 high-ranking police officials, representatives from civil society groups and development partners on cooperation between the government and them to promote democracy.
Kheng stressed that the government has not linked any civil society group to a colour revolution, but said some organisations had acted illegally by provoking people to protest against law enforcement under the pretext of human rights and democracy.
“[I am] not threatening, but if [we] have enough evidence, civil society organisations will be responsible before the law if they involve themselves in any [illegal] case or participate in a colour revolution. [We will] not play with them.”
The minister said the government has ensured the elections will proceed in a free, fair and just manner in line with the democratic process.
“I strongly hope that today’s forum will ensure the government and civil society organisations have a clear mutual understanding,” Sar Kheng said.
He also called for a stronger partnership between civil society and the government.
“We should not consider each other as rivals. On behalf of the government of Cambodia, the Ministry of Interior and I will continue to promote democracy."
“This forum is aimed at strengthening our partnership, not to the stage where we are inseparable, like fish and water. But we must share the role of showing the truth, and making it clear it is the truth. We should not consider each other as enemies."
“We must cooperate. What is right must be stated as right, and what is wrong must be stated as wrong. This is what we need.”
The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), which represents the largest number of civil society organisations in the Kingdom, used the forum to highlight its members’ concerns of being linked to opposition movements and a “colour revolution”.
“Although the general situation of cooperation between the government and civil society has improved over almost three decades, civil society groups have spoken of concern at being linked under the current political climate to opposition movements or of being involved in a colour revolution,” CCC Executive Director Soeung Saroeun said.
Saroeun also appealed to the government for a favourable environment in which his association’s members would be able to carry out their work without fear.
“We strongly hope that civil society organisations will be allowed the space to operate within the legal framework and in accordance with the law to act in good faith in a fair and unbiased environment,” Saroeun said.
Kheng also used the forum to refute allegations made by some national and international bodies that freedom of expression in Cambodia is being eroded, citing the existence “of more than five thousand organisations and associations in Cambodia”.
However, the interior minister expressed concern at a perceived “deterioration” between the government and civil society.
“The ministry sees it as a problem that there is a perception that the government will adopt a heavy-handed approach to civil society groups, and relations and cooperation on the ground seem to be deteriorating as a result,” Kheng said.
“This is not the case. But whenever there is enough evidence, organisations must be responsible before the law. [We] will not tolerate the law being broken.”
The ministry’s General Administration Department director-general, Prak Sam Oeun, compared civil society associations to political parties.
He said just as political parties have statutes they must obey, and also comply with the law, so must civil society groups do likewise.
“When these organisations act against set procedure, we have to enforce the law, so the Ministry of Interior will remove them if their activities affect national security, public order, national unity, culture, and the traditions of society,” he said.