Saying there was “no rush” in reaching a consensus on a controversial draft law governing non-governmental organizations, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday also told NGOs to keep criticisms of the government to a minimum and avoid being “too extreme.”
“I have given some advice to [Interior] Minister Sar Kheng to continue the discussion. I just want to tell [NGOs] that they shouldn’t be too extreme demanding this or that,” he said, speaking at a graduation ceremony at Phnom Penh’s National Institute of Education.
In a speech that lasted one-and-a-half hours, the prime minister also appeared to offer a hand to NGOs, telling them that the government would negotiate with them until there is a draft law that all parties are comfortable with.
“I would like to send a message that, if an agreement has not yet been reached, there is no need to hurry,” he said. “It is almost the end of 2011, and discussion on this law has been made for almost 20 years. Let it continue until 2012, or 2013, or 2014. It’s never too late.”
“Please reach an agreement first, then bring it to the Council of Ministers. We have to reach a law that would be accepted…. Don’t say anymore that the government is a dictatorship. If we were a dictatorship, we would be done with this already,” he said. “So don’t worry so much; we aren’t setting any date.”
Despite the slight admonitions, the prime minister spent much of the speech offering an olive branch to civil society, heaping praise upon them for their accomplishments and stressing that the government wished to continue working with them.
“I would like to say that the government has always paid attention to the activities of associations as well as non-governmental organizations. And we assume they are one of our key parts of the development sector,” he said.
“This law is not made in order to pressure civil society or NGOs,” he added.
Last week, civil society met with Interior Ministry officials to discuss the fourth and latest draft of the Law on Associations and NGOs, aimed at regulating Cambodia’s large non-governmental sector. Unlike most other pieces of draft legislation, the NGO law has enjoyed an unusually lengthy consultation process.
But during the discussions, rights groups and government officials appeared to have reached an impasse over a handful of provisions that civil society deem overly restrictive and which the government has refused to yield on.
Rights groups yesterday offered mixed reactions to the prime minister’s latest words on the matter.
“If the government does not want to hear ‘dictatorship,’ the government has to prove it with their actions,” said Ny Chakrya, head monitor at Adhoc, who applauded Mr. Hun Sen’s call for further discussion. “It is really important to give us the time to consider and give reaction on the law.”
His words were echoed by others. “It’s entirely appropriate that the prime minister should provide additional time for consultation on this draft law and we hope that the government will follow through on his pledge,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Others raised concerns over Mr. Hun Sen’s perception that criticism from NGOs about the law had been too aggressive.
“If the government is serious about democratic principles, then it should heed the concerns of civil society, which has the right and will continue to speak out on any actions that would affect fundamental freedoms,” said Shiwei Ye, Asean representative at the Bangkok-based International Federation for Human Rights, which last week joined a petition to have the law revised or dropped.
“Broad-based, substantive and regular consultations on the NGO law should be welcome. Human rights are not privileges to be granted by the government at its discretion.”
(Additional reporting by Abby Seiff)