The Council of Ministers approved a much-criticized draft NGO law on Friday—removing two articles to make registration “simple and easy for NGOs”—and plans to send the law to the National Assembly next week, a government spokesman said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the law, which NGOs fear will be used by the government to stifle criticism among civil society groups by restricting registration, would be sent to the National Assembly early next week after some revisions.
“The law was approved today and it will be sent to the National Assembly by Monday or Tuesday next week because we need to delete two articles and change some words,” Mr. Siphan said.
“The two articles were deleted because those articles seemed to make things complicated, so Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] wanted to make it simple and easy for NGOs to register, which means eradicating bureaucratic issues,” he added.
Mr. Siphan declined to say exactly which of the draft law’s 41 articles were removed. The last time the law was made public was during consultations in 2011, before it was temporarily shelved.
Mr. Siphan referred reporters to a statement posted to his Facebook page, which said the revised law “does not mention or limit the percentage of administration operation costs at all. Tax exemption and incentives are still in place.”
After years of silence on the law, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in April that he hoped to see the legislation finalized and put to a vote in the CPP-majority National Assembly within weeks.
On Tuesday, Mr. Hun Sen sought to reassure NGOs that the law would not interfere with their operations in the country.
“Non-government organizations and associations, please don’t be worried about the law. It will protect you and support you and let you act freely,” he said.
But on the same day, a senior U.S. diplomat said the law was worrisome and unnecessary during a visit to Phnom Penh.
“I’m concerned that the law will impose restrictions or burdens on NGOs that will make it difficult or impossible to do their critical work,” said Scott Busby, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.
The heads of several U.N. agencies and U.S. Ambassador William Todd have been warned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to stay out of Cambodia’s sovereign affairs in recent weeks after publicly raising their concerns over the law.
Senior opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said Friday that he believed the government had made significant concessions to the NGO community in its removal of two articles from the law, though he said he was not certain which articles had been deleted.
“I don’t know for sure, but I heard it was the really bad ones,” he said. “I’m glad that the government has somehow changed their minds by deleting some of the serious articles.”
Mr. Chhay said that lawmakers should be given at least a month to review the law before it is put to a vote.
“We are very concerned that in the past, the governing party has been willing only to call civil society to express their views, but they never take their views seriously enough to change or amend the original draft,” he said.
“So we hope that this time around there should not be any hurry, there should be at least four weeks allowed with the full participation of civil society…before the parliamentary debate,” he added.
Tek Vannara, executive director of the NGO Forum, said that although CPP lawmakers could pass the law without support from NGOs or CNRP lawmakers, it would hurt the ruling party’s credibility to do so.
“The CPP parliamentarians have a quorum to approve this law, but there is a pro and con. The ruling party and the government is a partner with civil society, so if they pass this law without consultation, it will hurt their reputation,” he said.
“So the CPP should reconsider some issues and provide us with space to do a consultation, because I think the Cambodian people also watch closely on the making of this NGO law. If the whole thing is not in the right direction, the people will judge for themselves.”