NGOs on Monday vowed to press ahead with a protest march through Phnom Penh on Tuesday against a draft law that threatens to rein in the country’s non-government groups and associations despite City Hall’s threat to stop them by “any means.”
In what would be the largest demonstration against the proposed legislation to date, some 600 NGO workers and unionists are planning to converge on the National Assembly from four locations around the city. They are hoping to convince the ruling CPP to scrap the draft, which they deem unconstitutional and fear the government will use to silence its critics.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the protest was premature because the law had yet to be approved.
“The NGO law has not yet become law because it is still under discussion, and there will be a work- shop to collect opinions and add them to the law,” he said. “So I think any protest against making the law is to cause chaos.”
Mr. Dimanche said authorities would prevent any attempts by the NGOs to march Tuesday because they had failed to ask City Hall for permission.
“We will not allow anybody to do anything illegal, so we will use any means to ensure respect of the law and to ensure public and social order,” he said. “So they cannot do anything that causes chaos or anarchy in the city.”
The country’s law on demonstrations states that those planning an event need only give authorities a few days’ advance notice.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said the NGOs decided not to give City Hall notice of their plans this time, as required by law, because of the municipal government’s habit of canceling their protests on spurious public security grounds.
Mr. Sam Ath said they would not be put off by the government’s threat to use “any means” to stop them, a phrase often used by authorities before deploying district security guards, police or even soldiers to block or break up unsanctioned events.
“We are not afraid of this threat, so we will stick to our plan to rally against the NGO law,” he said. “I think we are a democratic country, so there’s nothing wrong with people gathering peacefully, protesting and rallying to say what they are not satisfied with.”
Mr. Sam Ath also rejected Mr. Dimanche’s suggestion that the protest be postponed until the draft becomes law.
“We need to express our concerns and opinions now, while the law is not yet adopted,” he said. “Once the law is adopted, it will be hard to demand amendments.”
CPP lawmaker and National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun said the three Assembly commissions assigned to give input on the draft had finished reviewing it. He said he liked the law, but would ask the government to clarify some points after hosting a workshop on the draft for NGOs at the Assembly on July 10.
The law would require NGOs and associations to register with the government in order to keep operating and to file regular reports on their finances and activities. NGOs say that will prove a challenge for the smallest grassroots groups, some of whose members are illiterate, and that other overly vague articles will give the government undue power to block groups it does not like from operating in the country.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has assured critics that they have nothing to worry about and said the country needs the law to make sure terrorists do not try to sneak funds into the country using NGOs as fronts. He has vowed to push the law through parliament with or without the opposition CNRP, which opposes it.
On Monday, CNRP President Sam Rainsy told reporters that he briefly discussed the law with Mr. Hun Sen during a break in the morning’s Assembly session. He said the premier told him that NGOs that had already registered with the government would not have to do so again once the law is passed.
“This only clarifies one point, but there are many points that civil society organizations claim need to be deleted because they are unnecessary. Those are points that we are also considering,” Mr. Rainsy said. “The CNRP stands behind the NGOs.”
(Additional reporting by Kang Sothear)