A senior Ministry of Defence official yesterday claimed that housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) had received close to half a million dollars a year from the United States to foment “colour revolution” among the land dispute groups it worked with – a claim quickly rejected by the NGO.
Defence Ministry Secretary of State Neang Phat was speaking at an event with soldiers in Phnom Penh when he said that former STT head E Sarom, who was temporarily detained last year at a civil society protest, confessed to getting the large sum to foment movements that would serve a purported US strategy.
“At some places, the NGOs formed protesting groups. So, if we look at them, we see that they were under the umbrella of some NGOs with the plan to do a colour revolution,” he said.
“He [Sarom] confessed that they had received funds from $400,000 to $500,000 every year to form all these movements to serve the strategy of the Americans.”
Last May, Sarom, Licadho Deputy Director Thav Kimsan and Borei Keila land activist Sar Sorn were arrested near Prey Sar prison as they led the first so-called Black Monday protest seeking the release of the imprisoned “Adhoc 5”.
Phat claimed that those on the receiving end of the purported incitement included outspoken Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny, the Borei Keila community and land disputants from Thma Kol, also known as the “SOS” community.
He also complained about the existence of nearly 3,000 grassroots communities, all of who, he said, were anti-government.
“These communities are against the government, none of them is supporting the government,” he said.
He added that he had no further details to support his allegations and was basing it on a police report handed to him by Deputy National Police Chief Chhay Sinarith, who could not be reached yesterday.
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Pol Lim said he was not aware of Phat’s claims, and nor was Prak Sam Oeun, director for the ministry’s Administration Department.
The Defence Ministry official’s remarks come as the government mounts a concerted clampdown on the opposition, NGOs and independent media outlets, with a particular emphasis on the US allegedly backing such groups to foment a “colour revolution” – a reference to non-violent protest movements in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
E Sarom, who at the time was the NGO’s executive director, could not be reached yesterday, but Soeung Saran, who now heads STT, rejected the claims that it had been funded by the US government.
“STT has never received USAID or US State Department funding and does not serve any strategy of the USA or other foreign governments,” he said.
He said the group only focused on providing pro-poor technical assistance for urban housing and infrastructure issues, as well as helping housing rights abuse victims understand the laws relevant to them.
“STT tries to work with the Government of Cambodia and its institutions to develop urban poor areas for the betterment of all Cambodians,” he added.
In a short statement, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said, “We support the peaceful resolution of land disputes, but are not familiar with the NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut”.
Thma Kol land activist Chray Nim questioned the repeated attempts to attack NGOs that aided her community with technical resources – a responsibility, she said, the government had absolved itself of.
“Actually it is the government’s role and the [involved] company’s responsibility to find a solution, but then they turn to scapegoat NGOs that helped us, such as Teang Tnaut,” she said.
The anti-US conspiracy theories yesterday claimed another casualty – the European Union – when an anonymous letter to the editor, published on government mouthpiece Fresh News, claimed the superpower and economic bloc had stepped over a “red line”.
“Both ambassadors are trying to express their influence . . . and seek to pressure the Cambodian government to release the treasonous mastermind, [opposition leader] Kem Sokha, immediately and unconditionally,” the letter reads, referring to US Ambassador William Heidt and EU delegation head George Edgar.
The outlet’s articles and anonymous letters have proved eerily prescient in recent months, foreshadowing, among other things, the government’s expulsion of the NGO National Democratic Institute and its accusations that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – particularly Sokha, who is currently in prison on “treason” charges – had colluded with the US to topple the government. The CNRP is currently facing possible dissolution by the Supreme Court following a complaint from the Ministry of Interior.
In response, Ambassador Edgar said member states had expressed their serious concern over the arrest of Sokha and the potential dissolution and redistribution of the CNRP’s seats in parliament and at the local level, but insisted that the EU remained nonpartisan.
“It is up to the Cambodian people to choose whom they wish to represent them at commune and national level,” he said.
Additional Reporting by Leonie Kijewski