More than 300 NGOs are making a last-ditch effort to bring the government back to the negotiating table over a draft law they fear could be used to quash dissent and which Prime Minister Hun Sen hopes to have passed as soon as this month.
The proposed Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations would require the groups to register with the government and file regular reports with the state on their activities and finances.
But many NGOs worry that the law could be used to silence groups critical of government policies or practices, at a time when they already feel threatened by a newly revised election law that bars them from “insulting” or showing “bias” toward political parties during election campaigns.
At a press conference in Phnom Penh on Monday, the groups said the NGO law would violate their freedom-of-assembly rights under the Constitution and urged the government to hold off on passing the draft, which Mr. Hun Sen shelved in 2012 but revived last month. A total of 320 NGOs had signed a petition to that effect as of Thursday.
“Please pause it and come back to negotiations,” said Suon Bunsac, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, at Monday’s press conference.
“We want to exercise the rights guaranteed by the Constitution on public participation,” he said. “We want to fulfill our rights in line with democratic principles; this is the most important thing.”
Soeung Saroeun, head of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), said a letter that the NGOs sent to several government offices about a month ago asking for further negotiations had gone unanswered.
“We want the law,” said Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for Licadho. “But we want to make sure the law protects and promotes the rights of the people to participate in society.”
The NGOs say the last draft of the law seen by them, at a workshop the Interior Ministry hosted in 2011, would do just the opposite.
Among their main concerns—besides not getting to see what, if any, changes the government has made to it before it is passed—is the draft’s failure to lay out a clear and concise list of reasons the government would be allowed to use to reject an NGO’s application.
They say the grounds on which the government could shut down NGOs are too vague. For example, the draft says the Foreign Affairs Ministry can revoke the requisite memorandum of understanding of any international NGO that “conducts activities which jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, customs and traditions of the Cambodian national society.”
NGOs say the government has often used such vague language to go after its critics before, and that this law would give it more legal cover, however thin, to do so again.
To the relief of small, informal collectives of farmers across the country, the last draft left out provisions in earlier versions that would have required them to register with the government, too. But it still limits their activities to their particular communities, which they fear could put an end to any of the networks those communities have set up between them. They worry that even small associations that would have to register might struggle with the technical work of drawing up statutes or writing annual reports on their activities and finances.
“We cannot register because our capacity to create statutes…is limited,” said Theng Savoeun, a coordinator for the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Communities. “Our freedom is like food. If the government adopts this law, it means that we do not have food.”
International NGOs also say that restricting the portion of their budgets they can spend on salaries and office expenses to 25 percent could hurt some of their important work.
If the law forces NGOs to shut down or scale back, “millions of Cambodians could feel the impact across all fields, from health and education to livelihood, environment and good governance,” said Sarah Sitts, country manager for the NGO Pact.
A survey of the NGO sector by the CCC in 2012 found that the roughly 1,100 active associations and non-governmental organizations in Cambodia were spending up to $700 million per year on developing the country.
The prime minister announced last month that he wanted to see the long-dormant NGO law before the Council of Ministers by the end of May, with a National Assembly vote to follow closely.
Adding to the confusion over the law, however, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Monday that the draft had been with the Council of Ministers since at least mid-2013, when the CPP was voted into a fifth term.
“The law has been already sent to the Council of Ministers since the fourth term of the government,” he said, before hanging up.
Yet Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the council was still waiting for a copy. “We [didn’t] receive anything from the Ministry of Interior,” he said.
Mr. Siphan said he was, however, expecting the draft to reach the Council of Ministers within the week, and that once it did, any further meetings about it with NGOs would be out of the question.
“It hasn’t changed that much, but I’m not sure,” he said of the draft.’