The Interior Ministry said it would take legal action against the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) if it failed to submit a report on its 2022 financial activity by February.
The warning came after the prominent teachers’ union announced it would be holding a 10-day march from Phnom Penh to Kandal, Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang, and Pursat provinces starting February 10 to raise attention to issues of injustice.
In response, the ministry said only 50 participants would be permitted to join and also said that a December demonstration at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park calling for the release of political prisoners violated an order by the Phnom Penh municipality banning their marches.
The same letter said that the association would need to send documentation outlining its bank accounts and financial activities over the past year.
“In case the association does not implement the spirit of the letter above, the Ministry of Interior will take legal measures according to the law,” it continued.
Yearly financial reports are required under the Law on Association and Non-governmental Organization (LANGO), a controversial law passed in 2015 that rights groups and many legal experts say is aimed at stifling NGO activity.
Uk Chhayavy, president of CITA, told CamboJA that the ministry’s letter is intended to threaten the group in response to its efforts to raise awareness of rights abuses by the government.
“This is an image to threaten us for being scary, but for me, I am not afraid because what I have done follows the law,” she said.
“We will submit [our records] to the Interior Ministry, but our association does not have funds, and has no money in its bank account,” Chhayavy said.
However, she said that her association is preparing its report and will be submitting to the ministry by its deadline. Chhayavy added that donors had stopped providing funds to the association about six years ago, and the association now survives from membership fees and personal volunteers.
She also defended the previous demonstration, noting that it followed the Law on Peaceful Assembly, which requires only that authorities be informed of a planned demonstration.
Ny Sokha, president of rights group Adhoc, said that while the Interior Ministry’s request for financial reports followed the law, the larger aim of such laws was to pressure NGOs.
“Generally, the nature of LANGO is to put restrictions on the rights and freedom,” he said.
Vorn Pao, president of Independent Democratic of Informal Economic Association, said that the letter appeared intended to serve as pressure to scare away the public from joining the planned February march.
“I think that the state [Interior Ministry] should not issue the letter asking for a financial report, while they have already allowed the association to hold the gathering,” he said.
“It has added more pressure on the association and emotional pressure on them and a strategy to show the public not to join that event,” Pao said.
The planned February 10 march will see teachers, students, and others gathering at Wat Phnom before setting off on National Road 5. The final destination is in Pursat province, at a statue of Khleang Moeung — a sixteenth century military leader who has gained mythical status as a guardian spirit.
Interior Ministry spokesperson, Khieu Sopheak, said that the letter contained no threats, and only outlined the legal situation.
“It is their business whatever they want to say, and how can we threaten, it is just a small association,” he said.
“We have not seen their reports, that is the reason we tell them to submit it,” Sopheak said. “We want to know what bank account they have been using right now,” he said.
Sopheak added that the ministry has allowed only 50 participants to march and they need to cooperate with authorities and police in each province.
“We have allowed only 50 participants in the meeting. Note that if there are more, [we] we will take action,” he said.