After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on 23 October 1991, Cambodia adopted multi-party elections as a means for political parties to compete for government positions. Democratic values and principles have also gradually taken root in society. As a result, civil society organizations (CSOs) have sprung up like mushrooms, working on a wide range of political, social, economic and cultural issues.
A large majority of CSOs are funded by the international community, foreign donors and, in some cases, even by private individuals. The scope and scale of their work is such that it reaches nearly every corner of the country and directly or indirectly affects millions of lives. They play a very important role in reducing poverty and providing other public goods and services that the government might not be able to deliver due to budget constraints.
Despite such progress, a growing number of CSOs are established primarily to serve personal interests or to gain fame. Some of them may even break laws. For instance, a high profile Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist, Somaly Mam, was accused of fabricating stories in order to obtain support and funding for her foundation. In recent years, several orphanage centers have also been closed down due to poor living conditions, violence and suspected human trafficking.
Perhaps the most worrying issue is that several CSOs might have direct links to or receive funding from terrorist organizations, some of which have been on the U.S. government’s terrorist watch list. This is a potential threat to national security, and Cambodia is hardly an exception.
Another serious problem is money laundering. Several reports including the U.S.’ International Narcotic Control Strategy Report, indicate that Cambodia is vulnerable to money laundering due to weak enforcement and other governance issues, although the government has been ramping up efforts to tackle these over the years. Also, since some CSOs are operating without having to adhere to transparency measures, tax evasion complaints and other malpractices are not uncommon.
Sufficient and effective legal procedures are only the beginning of a long road to address these security challenges. There has also been a strong call for more cooperation between countries in the region in response to the growing sophistication and complexity of these transnational crimes. The lack of information about the operation and sources of funding of some of these organizations makes it very hard for the government to identify potential threats and to safeguard security.
Of course, it is legitimate for the people to be concerned that the proposed Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organizations (LANGO) might lead to a serious constraint on freedom of speech and association. Yet, arguing that it is not necessary for Cambodia to have such a law is rather absurd given the fact that many countries, including democratic ones, also have these laws to govern CSOs.
In addition, the concern that the LANGO will prevent CSOs from helping the poor and developing the country seems to be overstated. It does no good to the government to marginalize or suppress those CSOs. Admittedly, they have been working closely together on a number of crucial issues. Cambodia’s impressive record in achieving many of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals is thanks in no small part to some of these CSOs, and the government acknowledges that.
Thus, the focus should be on how the new laws introduced in the LANGO will help facilitate CSOs’ activities and strengthen freedom of speech and association, and whether the law will be fairly applied to everyone. Prime Minister Hun Sen has told CSOs to not worry, and that the LANGO will protect and support them. He reassures them that the law will also be in accordance with the Constitution.
In fact, successful implementation of the LANGO gives the international community and both local and foreign donors information about whether the money that they give to CSOs goes to the people that need it the most. The revelation of the misuse of funding by several organizations deals a major blow to the entire civil society. There is a need to restore trust and confidence in CSOs, so that the good ones can continue to do their work for the benefit of the Cambodian people.
Moreover, some provisions of this law would enhance authorities’ ability in tracking irregular activities and, if possible, taking action early to stop the crimes. It can also share such intelligence with its foreign partners, since terrorism and money laundering often involve a complex network of criminals from different nations. These preventive measures are more important for Cambodia given its lack of capability, skills and technology to handle such transnational crimes alone.
It is also important to note that making CSOs an exception to reasonable oversight measures would be seen as self-defeating and give the government reason to question their commitment and moral stance in promoting democracy in Cambodia. By adhering to the principles of transparency and accountability, many CSOs will also be able to improve their image and reputation, allowing them to make a more impactful contribution to the reform process and economic development.
The differences over the LANGO are not irreconcilable. The government and CSOs need to make collective efforts to ensure that the proposed law will protect and promote freedom of speech and association. Make no mistake. Strong CSOs and their close relations with the government are in the best interest of the country. However, they must operate within the purview of Cambodian Constitution and other relevant legislation.
Phoak Kung is the co-founder and president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.