Some 500 representatives from civil society organisations (CSO) on Thursday urged the Ministry of Interior to uphold the principle of democracy and allow them to carry out activities without any restrictions from local authorities.
The appeal was made during the third public forum on the partnership between the government and CSOs held at the Ministry of Interior and presided over by its minister Sar Kheng.
While acknowledging the CSOs’ contributions to social development, Sar Kheng took issue with claims of restriction on their activities. He said CSOs had enjoyed more freedom and that such forums demonstrated the government’s commitment to working in partnership with them.
“Civil society organisations based in Cambodia and abroad have played an important role in providing and supporting social services in remote areas and communities. They have carried out activities in the capital and all provinces across the Kingdom in both social and economic sectors.
“CSOs have also been involved in advocacy demanding state reforms to promote health, education, good governance, human rights, the judicial system, natural resources, the environment and social services and so on,” he said.
In the first six months of this year, he said, non-governmental organisations, associations and communities at the grassroots levels had full freedom to carry out their legal activities without having to give the local authorities three days prior notice as previously required.
Instead, the CSOs’ activities were coordinated by local authorities, which he said were more aware of their contribution and provided better cooperation.
The interior minister went on to reject a report by a local NGO that claimed to have recorded 71 cases of restriction on CSOs’ activities.
He said inter-ministerial working groups created to address the CSOs’ concerns had received only several complaints alleging such restriction in the first six months of this year.
“I don’t understand why those NGOs did not report the incidents or requested cooperation from inter-ministerial working groups, or asked municipal and provincial administrations to help coordinate when the problems arose. Does this demonstrate a real partnership?” he said.
Sar Kheng said the increasing number of CSOs registering with the ministry was proof of the government’s openness to their contribution.
He said as of this month, a total of 5,483 associations and NGOs had registered with the ministry, 2,203 of which are associations and 3,280 are NGOs. He said 81 associations and NGOs were removed from the ministry’s list at their requests.
“The number of new associations and NGOs registering with the ministry has not declined as claimed by some [critics] who often accuse the government of restricting the rights to establish NGOs and freedom of expression,” he said.
He urged the local authorities to facilitate the CSOs’ registration with the ministry and to ensure that foreign associations and NGOs that had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation could carry out their activities freely without intimidation under the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Associations.
Theng Savoeun, the director of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community who was present at the meeting, welcomed the move.
“The local authorities’ knowledge [of the law] is still limited. We hope that after the minister gave this instruction, they will be more aware of it. In the past, their actions ran counter to the ministry’s directive.
“We acknowledge that there is an improvement in terms of freedom to operate, but in certain areas, the local authorities still restrict our activities because they are not well aware of the law,” he said.
Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna said the minister’s claims of freedom to operate without restriction did not reflect the real situation on the ground. “We have a clear report that proves otherwise, but to be fair we do not know what methods the Ministry of Interior had used to collect data,” he said.
“The national-level leadership should lay out guidelines for officials or the local authorities to follow to prevent them from acting in contrast to the ministry’s directive. In the past, some local authorities have violated the ministry’s guidance and instructions of the minister,” he said.