Cambodia’s NGO Blues
Image Credit: laihiu

Cambodia’s NGO Blues

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‘This isn’t right at all’, says Mr Ponlok, owner of a waterfront cafe at Boeung Kok Lake in Phnom Penh. ‘People are being forced out and the compensation is way too small’.

Lakeside residents are being driven from their homes as developers try to fill the landmark lake in Cambodia's capital with earth and sand, prior to turning it into a residential and shopping complex. In deal signed between Shukaku Inc. and the Cambodian government, a 99-year lease to the 103-hectare lake site was granted to the developers, a location that sits under the noses of the nearby British and French Embassies.

The lake is now about one-third of its former size, wafting a lingering odour from the pollution and ubiquitous rubbish strewn along the narrowing lakeshore. In Phnom Penh’s overcast and breezeless humidity, the smell wraps itself round the visitor like an unseen—and certainly unwanted—shroud.

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Maybe half of the lakeside residents have already been evicted, and the 2,000 or so families still there have been given a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $8,500 to vacate their homes and properties.

Land rights are a complex and controversial issue in Cambodia, where under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, cities were emptied as part of a forced ruralisation scheme. The regime nationalised all private property and gutted ownership records. In a bid to settle the confusion and laythe bedrock for some sort of property rights and legal framework for ownership, a 2001 law said that people who could prove five years of continuous occupancy could apply to formally own the land, but that does not seem to apply to the lakeside residents. 

NGOs based in Cambodia have played a crucial role so far in lobbying for the lakeside residents’ rights. However, the Cambodian government has tabled a new NGO law that threatens to undermine the independence of organisations and make it much more difficult for voluntary associations to be formed in the country. This in turn will hamper citizens from taking action against perceived rights violations, activists say.

According to Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, there are many technical problems with the law. ‘Key provisions are vague and open to arbitrary interpretation,’ she says. ‘In many circumstances, the government has carte blanche to shut organizations down without appeal.’

The complex and mandatory registration process will close many organisations, and the law is in breach of Cambodia’s Constitution and its obligations under international treaties, according to LICADHO. Overall, there are around 3,000 NGOs operating in Cambodia, ranging from international brands such as Oxfam to village level organizations. 

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