Interior Ministry Issues Stop-Order to Situation Room NGOs

The Interior Ministry on Tuesday sent cease-and-desist letters to at least two independent groups over their participation in the election monitoring consortium dubbed the Situation Room, effectively ending any plans by the ad hoc group to monitor the national election next year.

The Situation Room was ordered to stop its election monitoring activities, including any future actions, as the collective “does not reflect the neutrality” required by the government’s Law on Associations and NGOs, or Lango, according to the ministry notice.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks at the Sofitel hotel in Phnom Penh during a meeting on the implementation of the traffic law in January. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Letters were posted on the ministry’s website and addressed to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Nicfec) in Cambodia, two members of the consortium. It was not immediately known if the other 38 members of the group received similar notifications.

Yoeurng Sotheara, the law and monitoring officer at Comfrel, described the ministry’s action as “definitely” a big blow to the Situation Room, which monitored both the pre-election environment around the country and the voting for commune officials on June 4.

The notice followed findings from the ministry that the ad hoc group should have registered with the government and might face sanctions ranging from a warning letter to legal action later this week.

Prime Minister Hun Sen sparked the investigation into the NGO collective last week, accusing it of failing to register with the ministry and of serving as a platform for a “color revolution.”

Pol Lim, a secretary of state at the ministry charged with investigating the case, said a panel of experts had concluded that the Situation Room should have registered as an association or NGO.

“We have researched and we found no registration,” he said.

Mr. Lim declined to say what consequences might befall the group until Interior Minister Sar Kheng approved the findings. Mr. Kheng left on Tuesday to attend a mission in Barcelona according to a news release from his cabinet.

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the ministry, could not be reached for comment, but said in an interview with Radio France International on Monday that the ministry would take action this week.

The group’s punishment would be based on the severity of its mistakes, he said, ranging from a warning letter, to a ban on monitoring future elections, to legal action.

It remains to be seen how any punishment would be imposed, as the group disbanded last month after issuing its findings on the commune elections, many of which were critical of the pre-election environment.

The group has maintained that its temporary and unstructured nature negated any need to formally register with the ministry, points repeated on Tuesday by Comfrel’s Mr. Sotheara.

The group has not met to discuss the ministry’s accusations, he said.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the government would be committing a “grave human rights violation” by insisting the group should have registered under Lango.

“This is just the sort of disastrous, rights abusing scenario that we and other human rights groups predicted when PM Hun Sen decided to jam this law through the parliament, essentially tying the LANGO noose around civil society’s neck,” he wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Correction: This version corrects the acronyms for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Nicfec) 

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