Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said his ministry will respond to EU claims that Cambodian civil society organisations had been threatened and repressed by saying it could not find evidence to support the allegations of certain NGOs.
He said the Ministry of Interior always took care to act on any information it received.
Sar Kheng was speaking at the National Workshop on the Formulation of 2020 Annual Work Plan and Budget of the National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development (NCDD) on Thursday at the ministry.
“Some information failed to reach us even though some NGOs have said they sent the information directly to us. We cannot act to resolve such issues when we have not received the information.
“This is the truth,” Sar Kheng said, referring to accusations cited by the EU in its decision to start the process for the possible withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement.
He said the Ministry of Interior had not found any cases of threats or repression as claimed by some NGOs.
“We have said this in our response to the EU. We have heard that [some NGOs] were complaining of threats and repression, but we don’t have any specific information on this.
“In principle, we always issue instructions during workshops like this, through official letters and through going directly to communities.
“We always remind [NGOs] to promote the partnership. If one side is willing to strengthen this partnership but another is not, this is not possible. So both sides must be willing to work together,” Sar Kheng said.
He said the Ministry of Interior had taken all concerns regarding the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) seriously and held national forums to meet with NGOs every six months.
The forums were intended for the exchange of information between the two sides and as a space where concerns and issues for resolution could be raised.
He said the government had a permanent mechanism in place led by a secretary at the Ministry of Interior with legal experts and members of other ministries who would come together to address the concerns of NGOs.
He said Ministry of Interior officials were working with NGOs to discuss amendments to the Lango.
“This means that we have never ignored any concerns or comments made by NGOs working in advocacy and development. We will continue to do this, and we also made this point in our response to the EU.
For example, it said there had been 100 cases [of threats] but we looked into this and could not find any evidence. If this information is true then please tell us. But some of the information was not clear so we do not know how to resolve such issues,” Sar Kheng said.
With regards to working with NGOs, he appealed to civil society groups to advance the partnership for the benefit of the nation’s development.
“We don’t regard civil society as an opposition. Rather, we regard their comments as beneficial for us to understand any problems they have,” Sar Kheng said.
Talking to the media after the workshop, Sar Kheng said the Ministry of Interior had submitted its response to the EU via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would send a collected response to the EU by Thursday, he said.
“We have shown them the full truth because we cannot tell them lies. What we have said is the truth,” Sar Kheng stressed.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Koy Kuong said the ministry has not yet sent the response to the EU.
The 28-nation bloc has given Cambodia until Thursday to respond to its report, which said there had been serious human rights and labour rights violations in Cambodia.
According to the withdrawal procedure, the EU will make a final decision in February on whether or not to fully or partly withdraw the EBA.
“Problems have occurred in the past, including the closure of an internal bureau and the postponement of the activities of some NGOs, with some being prevented from organising workshops in the last three years.
“Some NGOs have also been put under surveillance,” said Soeng Sen Karuna, spokesperson for rights group Adhoc.
He said some members of the Situation Room, which monitors elections, had been accused of being involved in a “colour revolution”, while some civil society groups working in advocacy and election monitoring had been placed in a “white book”.
“We don’t know how the Ministry of Interior made the evaluation that led it to say it was unable to find any evidence of threats or repression against civil society.
“We have noted that the government always denies such problems. Such a response is not a positive one,” Sen Karuna said.