A sugar company involved in a land dispute in Kampong Speu province yesterday rebuffed suggestions that it is in part responsible for the temporary shuttering of land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia.
The NGO was ordered closed for one month last Thursday, in a letter from Interior Minister Sar Kheng. The order based the closure on alleged violations of the new Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango), purported breaches of the organisation’s own bylaws and a complaint filed by villagers against Equitable Cambodia.
The villagers delivered the complaint on September 4, saying the organisation “incited the community to separate”, but multiple other villagers involved in the land dispute in Oral district maintained that the protesters had been hired by the company, owned by tycoon Ly Yong Phat.
Phnom Penh Sugar Director Andy Seng insisted that it had nothing to do with the NGO’s closure. “Phnom Penh sugar has put great effort on developing the area around the sugarcane plantation in Oral and Tpong district. We [are] also trying our best to solve any dispute arising from the villagers,” he said in an email.
“To our deepest regret, Equitable Cambodia do not see the value the company has delivered and do not act in a manner that could bring solution to the villagers. This is the only conflict that we are having.
However, the company has never submit[ted] any complaint for closing down the NGO. The results from the suspension, as you can see from the news, is because of the complaint from villagers and the inability to act according to the law by the NGO management team [itself].”
EC director Eang Vuthy yesterday maintained that the organisation had not violated the law and said they would file all documents as requested. “We work to support people to protect and defend their rights through legal, non-violent means, which is consistent with our rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution,” he said.
Cambodians who have previously been helped by the organisation yesterday lamented its closure, suggesting that it was based more on politics than actual breaches of the law. Hoy Mai, a 55-year-old community leader in Oddar Meanchey, thought the government may have become wary of the NGO’s advocacy work.
“Perhaps the government is afraid that … villagers learn the laws,” she said. “We are hopeless to hear [about the suspension].”
Meanwhile, Yi Khun Thear, a resident of Chi Khor Krom commune in Koh Kong’s Sre Ambel district, said she was still waiting for compensation for land she says she lost in a dispute in 2006. “I feel discouraged, because when I got into the land dispute, EC taught me my rights and taught me how to file a complaint,” she said.
Mao Men, 40, one of the protesters who called for the Interior Ministry to close the NGO, said he was “more than happy” about the suspension. “They are very unfair, and are lying to the villagers,” he said.
But fellow Trapaing Chor commune resident Khoun Khorn, 61, disagreed. “The NGO has done nothing wrong. The NGO only told us that if you lose your land, demand it in a proper and legal way.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director, said in an email that the order showed that the government used Lango “in an arbitrary fashion”. “The telling point is the involvement of Sen. Ly Yong Phat, which indicates the real story is this land rights NGO strayed too close to the corrupt core of the ruling party,” he said.