As hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Senate Friday morning, 44 ruling party senators voiced their support for the controversial NGO law before approving it unanimously and sending it on to the Constitutional Council.
Senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang said that eight senators offered their opinions in support of the law—roundly derided by NGOs and international donors—before approving it at the end of a 3-hour meeting. Eleven Sam Rainsy Party senators boycotted the session.
“We the senators reviewed each article and debated thoroughly before voting,” Mr. Bun Neang said, adding that the law would be sent to the Constitutional Council on Monday.
If approved by the council, King Norodom Sihamoni’s signature would be all that is needed for the law to come into effect.
“This law is very important because it helps make associations and NGOs become legal entities that will be protected by the law,” Mr. Bun Neang said.
Those gathered outside the Senate disagreed.
Scuffling with dozens of police deployed to keep them away from the Senate entrance on Norodom Boulevard, the protesters help up signs and chanted slogans calling for the NGO law to be scrapped.
“When this law is enforces, it means we will all be dead because it will restrict our right to gather peacefully and exercise our freedoms,” said Chhay Kimhorn, a land rights activist from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila neighborhood.
“This law will impact people facing land issues in Phnom Penh and across the country because the government can form interpretations to punish any NGOs that come to support us in advocating for land rights,” she added.
Ms. Kimhorn was among about 500 peaceful protesters who spent most of the morning across the street from the Senate’s gate, which police prevented them from blocking.
Soem Vuthy, a deputy municipal police chief watching over the demonstration, said allowing the group to gather at all was a “compromise.”
“I cannot allow them to cross [the street],” he said. “We don’t restrict their rights, but we request for them not to rally because it effects public order.”
“Now I compromise by allowing all sisters and brothers to gather on this side to exercise their freedom of expression,” he added.
At one point, police with riot shields and protesters got into a shoving match that lasted for about 30 minutes, but ended without any serious injuries.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said the efforts to curb Friday’s protest served as a metaphor for the effect the NGO law will have on public criticism of the government.
“Of course the authorities and police shoved the crowd of protesters for just staging a peaceful protest and assembling,” he said. “It’s a symbol showing the critical impact [of the law] on people’s freedom of expression.”