The Interior Ministry yesterday responded to US criticism of plans to regulate the nongovernmental sector, saying public remarks by a visiting diplomat had “broken the consultation process.”
The news media were summoned to the US Embassy on Tuesday, where Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said that the law appeared unnecessary.
In a letter, Interior Ministry Secretary of State Nuth Sa An said consultations with NGOs were ongoing. “Your statement, ‘we don’t see the need for the law at this point,’ now has broken the consultation process,” he wrote.
In brief telephone interviews, Mr Sa An said that he had written the letter to express disappointment with the statements from Mr Baer, but he said that the draft law would continue to undergo consultation.
The ministry has promised to incorporate changes proposed by NGOs during the last round of talks, but groups contacted yesterday said they had yet to see any documents with updated language or hear of any more scheduled meetings.
“I wrote the letter in order to show my disappointment with him. Why does he show his appreciation and welcome our processing of the NGO law, but later on keep saying to the media that the NGO law is not necessary?” Mr Sa An said.
“We always accept and discuss when any NGOs give any reaction on laws, changes or any additional points. We always consider for changing, not just keeping only apart from the government,” he said.
Mr Sa An ended the letter with an apparent swipe at the US, referring to losses suffered by Cambodia during the Cold War, an era that saw the US bomb Cambodia and provide covert support to the Khmer Rouge.
“Cambodia has learnt and experienced with many lessons of the Cold War that left Cambodia and her people to be destroyed and died without mercy,” Mr Sa An wrote.
Mr Baer this week was on his first visit to Phnom Penh, meeting with international and domestic NGOs as well as senior officials at the Interior and Foreign ministries to discuss the draft NGO law.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Mr Baer called his meetings here “productive.”
“I think we’ve made clear that we don’t yet understand the necessity of the law and we would say that we think there should be a full assessment and it should be made clear what the case for the law is,” he said.
In an e-mail, US Embassy spokesman Mark Wenig referred questions back to Mr Baer’s remarks at the news conference on Tuesday.
The US is Cambodia’s third-largest bilateral donor, supporting the work of numerous NGOs in health and human rights.
In his letter, Mr Sa An wrote that he had explained the necessity of the law, telling Mr Baer the number of NGOs in Cambodia had “mushroomed to more than 2,000 organizations.
“Subsequently, the rule of law is the necessity for Cambodia to ensure the activities of the national and international NGOs to be protected from the unnecessary activities that may hamper their objectivity.”
NGOs said they believed the letter would not hinder talks that have yet to be scheduled with the government.
“I do believe that the government will not consider this as a barrier for us to participate in the consultations,” said Soeung Saroeun, senior operations and finance manager with the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia. “We’ve built a relationship for more than two decades with the government.”