More than two months of research into relations between NGOs and the government was officially presented in Phnom Penh on Thursday, with an overriding message of distrust, and concerns that the proposed NGO Law will be repressive.
Following the release on Wednesday of a summary of the report, Assessment of the Enabling Environment for Civil Society, one of the authors Thursday outlined some of the key concerns raised by 23 NGO representatives and one government adviser during the research, which aimed to determine what hampers NGOs from operating effectively.
“We want to see if the results reflect reality and whether or not the implementation of policy, guidelines and laws is an enabling environment,” said Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, which commissioned the study.
Study author Louise Coventry said the study would hopefully prompt constructive dialogue between the government and NGOs “instead of focusing on weaknesses and challenges.”
That said, “government and civil society organizations relations are generally untrusting, although they [the relations] significantly depend on the type of work by the NGO and the level of government engaged,” Ms. Coventry said.
Interviewees in the report raised concerns about two laws in the pipeline: the NGO Law and a proposed anti-cybercrimes law, the latter of which could “restrict freedom of expression,” Ms. Coventry said.
“The new [NGO Law] can potentially clarify registration requirements, but many civil society actors are concerned that it will be used to shrink the democratic space,” she said.
“There are also concerns of occasional threats and suspensions of CSOs [civil society organization] by the government,” and “growing concern that the royal government of Cambodia is applying pressure and intimidation on NGOs and their staff.”
NGOs that suffer the most are typically involved in the promotion of human rights and democratization, she said.
Respondents also highlighted issues with the registration of NGOs, describing a “complex, onerous” process during which staff at the Ministry of Interior regularly request unofficial fees or bribes in order to complete the necessary paperwork.
Meas Sarim, an adviser to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, attended Thursday’s presentation. Reached by telephone afterward, he provided a more upbeat assessment of the environment for NGOs.
“The relation between the NGOs and government is in good shape…. We have good cooperation with them,” he said.
“The government considers the NGOs as a main partner in developing the country, but there are a few NGOs who raised concerns about the government’s weak point—this is their right and views.”
Mr. Sarim said NGOs must respect the conditions set by the government governing their activities and that the NGO law “is coming soon.”
“In this fifth mandate, the government is committed to passing it,” he said, adding that it was untrue that Interior Ministry officials had sought bribes from NGOs during the registration process.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)