In 2008, Thon Thoeun and 74 residents of his small village in Kompong Cham province came together to send authorities a letter asking them to hand back a 4,800-hectare plot of farmland they said a government official had stolen.
Unlike most land disputes in the news that pit villagers against officials, the farmers got their way.
“We wrote the letter to provincial authorities about our land problem, and as a result we got back the… plot of land,” Mr Thoeun recalled yesterday.
For their success, Mr Thoeun thanked the informal association they formed the year before to meet occasionally over community concerns.
But under the strictest interpretation of a new draft law, multinational NGOs down to associations like Mr Thoeun’s will have to register with the government if they want to keep meeting.
Mr Thoeun worries that his few dozen villagers will not be able to meet its bureaucratic demands. Registering will require everything from bank account disclosures to technical charters detailing the “functioning of governing bodies” and “methods for selecting…staff.”
Some of the country’s largest NGOs have called the rules a threat to the thousands of such small associations estimated to be working across the country.
“Our community would not be able to meet these requirements,” said Mr Thoeun, who has been fretting over the few news broadcasts he has heard on the draft law. “I don’t know how to write reports. Our community cannot do these kinds of things…. If they pressure us, we might not be able to make it.”
And if they cannot meet, Mr Thoeun fears they will not be able to stave off land grabbers the way they did in 2008, or any of the other forces that threaten them with poverty.
The law defines an association as any group that forms to “consider” the interests of its members—or the broader public—without the aim of earning its members a profit.
NGOs, many of which work with these associations and sometimes rely on them to carry out fieldwork, find this dangerously vague and overbroad. The law also requires associations to find at least 21 members before they can even consider registering, and file annual activity and expense reports. Sometimes no more than a dozen poor and uneducated farmers, some associations may find the requirements virtually impossible to meet, NGOs fear.
“So we need to be clear what level they are talking about,” said Janardhan Rao, country director for Concern Worldwide. “Many of these self-help groups have less than 21 [members], so are they not allowed to register even if they want to?
“These are all traditional ways people get together to try to help each other,” he said. If interpreted in the broadest sense, he added, virtually no unregistered group would be allowed to associate, “and that is scary.”
The government has dismissed the concerns, claiming groups that say they will not be able to register simply do not want to. But officials have given critics some cause to hope that they do not plan to apply the law quite as strictly as it reads.
On Monday, at the only public workshop the government has held on the draft, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said forestry and fishing communities would be governed only by the country’s forestry and fisheries laws.
But even that could leave thousands of groups in the draft law’s sights, said Mr Rao. In its bid to alleviate rural poverty, Concern alone works with 17 other NGOs that have helped form 450 village associations across four provinces. Those associations in turn comprise some 2,000 community groups.
These “self-help” groups—sometimes as few as eight or nine villagers, rarely more than 20—discuss their needs, come up with a plan and ask the NGOs for small grants. A project may be something as simple as setting up a chicken farm. But it is these associations and groups who actually envision the projects and carry them out.
“If this is not there, I don’t know how we can work,” Mr Rao said. “It is virtually impossible if we don’t have that space. It will make our work very hard.”
As executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, another NGO, Yeng Virak and his staff had offered legal aid and education to hundreds of associations across the country.
Like other NGO workers, he worries that the law’s bureaucratic demands will weigh down an often organic process with “governing bodies” and “methods for selecting…staff,” even assuming they have the wherewithal to comply with such requirements.
“As human beings we share ideas, we share our values…and sometimes we get together,” he said. “If you require these groups to register and meet requirements, it’s not possible.”
Some NGOs have suggested amending the draft to create a tiered registration process that places the least burned on the smallest groups. At Monday’s workshop, Japanese Embassy first secretary Hideaki Matsuo noted that his country had a provision for “voluntary organizations” that did not have to register at all.
Concern Worldwide’s Mr Rao said India also had an exemption for associations. He welcomed the idea of a mechanism for registering civil society groups in Cambodia.
“But to use that to include every association in the country?” he said. “There need to be voluntary associations.”
In a statement yesterday, the US State Department said it had ” serious concerns” about the draft and “strongly opposes the enactment of any law that would constrain the legitimate activities of NGOs.”
As for concerns about exactly how the government will define associations, Interior Ministry secretary of state Nuth Sa An yesterday said he would not comment because the law was still a draft. NGOs have asked the government to at least meet with them again, but officials have not yet replied to that request either.
In Choeung Ong village in Kandorl Chrum commune’s Ponhea Krek district in Kompong Cham, Mr Thoeun said his association would be holding its own meeting about the draft soon.
“If they don’t let us gather, it blocks our rights,” he said. “Even the government can meet and talk about problems. Why can’t we do it? It is for the sake of the people.”