More than 100 protesters rallied outside the National Assembly on Tuesday morning as opposition lawmakers made an unsuccessful effort to block their ruling-party counterparts from pushing ahead with a contentious law to regulate the hundreds of NGOs in the country.
“We will not vote for any political parties who raise their hands to vote for the law on associations and non-governmental organizations,” said Vorn Pao, a prominent labor leader who was among those leading the demonstration.
But just as the Council of Ministers approved the law earlier this month despite vocal opposition from NGO leaders and the international community, CPP lawmakers on the National Assembly’s 13-member permanent committee Tuesday decided to move forward with the controversial legislation.
“I wish to inform you that although there are some groups who tried to oppose the draft law from proceeding further, the committee approved it by nine votes to four votes,” National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun said by telephone afterward.
“During the meeting, some members said that the law is not necessary while others argued that the law is quite important,” he added.
The permanent committee is normally composed of seven CPP lawmakers and six CNRP lawmakers—the heads of parliament’s 10 commissions along with the Assembly president and two vice presidents. However, two CNRP commission heads were absent Tuesday, and their CPP deputies took their place in the vote.
The draft NGO law has drawn criticism from local and international NGOs—as well as from the U.N. and the U.S. government—for provisions that would give the government the power to bar organizations from registering in the country and take punitive action against groups deemed to be violating the “customs and traditions of the Cambodian national society.”
Mr. Vun said three CPP-led parliamentary commissions would review the law, including his foreign affairs commission, the interior commission and the legal affairs commission. The CNRP-headed human rights commission and social affairs commission will not be involved in the reviewing process.
Yem Ponhearith, an opposition spokesman and permanent committee member, said the four CNRP lawmakers present during Tuesday’s discussion pushed to have the law sent back to the Council of Ministers for revisions.
“Basically, there were a lot of controversial discussions during the meeting because our lawmakers from the CNRP wanted the draft to be sent back to the government for a broader discussion with NGOs involved,” he said.
As a consolation, Mr. Vun said his commission would invite diplomats, NGO leaders and lawmakers to take part in a workshop on the draft law. He said he did not know when the workshop might take place.
Although the government has previously said the law was necessary to prevent terrorist funding from entering the country through NGOs, Mr. Vun indicated that it would also be used to do exactly what its opponents most fear: suppress voices that are critical of the government.
“This law is quite important and we are happy, and there are some civil society organizations that have good will,” he said.
“But some other NGOs have ill intentions because they just shout along the streets when they get money from donors and issue false statements causing social instability.”