Hun Sen Touts NGO Law as Bulwark Against Terrorist Financing

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Sunday that lawmakers must pass a controversial law on NGOs in order to prevent funds from terrorist groups such as al-Qaida from seeping into the country.

After years of silence on the law, which NGOs fear the government could use to go after its critics, Mr. Hun Sen said he hoped to have a draft in front of the Council of Ministers—the final step before reaching the National Assembly—as early as next month.

“You have to be clear about how the money enters Cambodia and where the money is coming from,” he said during a speech at the NGO Krousar Thmey in Phnom Penh, where he had gone to hand out gifts to children.

“The money could come from al-Qaida or ISIS, which would put us to death and could not be controlled,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State militant group. “We have dissolved one NGO that was suspected of having terrorist financing, and there are some others laundering money.”

The prime minister did not name the NGOs or elaborate on the suspected sources of the allegedly dirty money.

“If someone spends money to build a military force, how can we maintain national security?” he continued. “We are not making the law to block non-government organizations, we just want you to be transparent.”

Following unusually harsh criticism from the international community, including the U.N. and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mr. Hun Sen in late 2011 said the government was in no rush to pass the law and would push the issue back to 2014.

The law would require NGOs and associations to register with the government in order to have legal standing, set minimum conditions for who can form such groups, and require them to file annual reports on their activities and finances. NGOs fear that vague wording in the drafts they have seen would let the government reject applications from groups it simply does not like.

On Sunday, Mr. Hun Sen told the critics not to complain so much and accused unnamed NGOs of taking their marching orders from unnamed embassies. He said the foreign aid industry was pushing back against the law out of its own financial interests, citing a conversation he once had with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about comments he had made to Mr. Ban’s predecessor.

“I said to His Excellency [Mr. Ban], ‘I told Kofi Annan that I don’t expect a good report on human rights in Cambodia because if the report said that human rights in Cambodia were good, the people working on human rights would have no work to do.’ This is a true story.”

Mr. Hun Sen also raised the case of disgraced NGO founder Somaly Mam, suggesting that passage of the proposed NGO law might have prevented her rise.

Ms. Mam founded an NGO to rescue and rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking, but stepped down after it emerged that she had fabricated key parts of her story as a victim and coached girls to lie about their own experiences in order to attract donations.

“She pretended to be an artificial prostitute,” the prime minister said. “She said she was raped as a child and that she was a victim to receive foreign aid and form an NGO in Cambodia. The one whose reputation got spoiled is the Khmers.”

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho, one of the government’s most frequent critics, dismissed Mr. Hun Sen’s argument that the NGO law would help root out terrorist financiers. He said the laws needed to do so were already in place.

“I think that we have a clear criminal code,” he said. “What he said was just to make the [NGO] law happen.”

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