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Cambodian Government’s Request for 'Meetings' Seen as Intimidation

A man is on the phone in front of the office of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 24, 2017.

The Cambodian government summoned three human rights organizations to meetings in Phnom Penh to examine research they published and comments one of them gave to the media, a move the NGOs described as attempts at intimidation.

The organizations are Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), Licadho and Transparency International (TI).

TI director Preap Kol was summoned separately for separate comments.

In their report Collateral Damage: Land Loss and Abuses in Cambodia's Microfinance Sector, Licadho and STT highlight cases of Cambodians having lost their land when their land titles were used as collateral for taking up a loan. The report tells of Cambodian citizens being left deep in debt.

Following the publication of the report, Licadho and STT were asked to meet Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan on September 4.

Licadho director Naly Pilorge said that most of the meeting was spent on pushing both organizations to sign a pre-written statement that implied that the results found in their research were not accurate. “Of course, Licadho and STT refused to sign this joint statement,” she said. “So most of the meeting was to push, to coerce, to threaten both organizations to sign on.”

She said she assumed that they were called to meet because the report concentrated upon the issue of debt and raised issues that investors should be wary of.

The government has repeatedly stressed that Cambodia’s economy was growing at a steady rate.

The two organizations were called in for a second meeting, an invitation both organizations declined.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he had called the meeting with the two organizations because he said the “fake report is biased” and was “misrepresenting the reality.”

Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, condemned the move by the Council of Ministers. “The questioning of STT, Licadho and TI representatives sends a clear message to other human rights defenders and government critics that dissent is not tolerated in Cambodia,” she said in an email to VOA. “The intimidation of these NGOs formulates part of a wider, systemic attack on free speech and peaceful dissent. …. The severe curtailment of the abilities of citizens to exercise their fundamental freedoms has caused a chilling rise in self-censorship, illustrating that Cambodian’s feel unable or are unwilling to speak freely.”

Spokesman Siphan rejected that criticism. “I don’t condemn them… I invite them,” he said, rejecting allegations that he had pressured them. “I do not put pressure on them.”

Preap Kol, country director of Transparency International, had also been called for a meeting with Phay Siphan for comments he gave to the Southeast Asia Globe.

“Cambodia applies 'free market economy' ideology and, as far as I know, does not yet have a policy that ensures an equitable share of profit to local people,” Kol told the Southeast Asia Globe. “Therefore, the majority of Cambodian people, especially those who are poor or disadvantaged, are not ideally benefiting from the impressive economic growth.”

Kol excused himself, saying that he was out of the country currently.

Siphan said he would keep inviting Kol to meet.

Kol said the move to call him in for a meeting was unusual and a first-off. “I have never been invited to a meeting of this nature to clarify my comments in the media,” he said in a message to Voice of America from Sweden. “This appears to make people feel intimidated to speak to the media but this would not stop me from continuing to speak the truth… I am open to meet and discuss with any concerned as necessary, preferably in an environment that is free of intimidation and oppression.”