NGO and opposition officials voiced concern Sunday that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s proposed NGO law could compromise the independence of NGOs and hamper the country’s progression toward democracy.
In his lengthy Friday speech, Hun Sen revived discussion of an NGO law, saying that NGOs have gotten out of hand and there needs to be a law to oversee the money flowing into them.
“NGOs demand others to respect the law…. They talk about transparency and accountability for income, but where do those NGOs get their money from and for what?” Hun Sen asked Friday.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said by phone Sunday that the premier’s remarks were meant for each of the more than 2,000 NGOs operating in Cambodia but were targeted at organizations that had been particularly meddlesome on issues relating to deforestation and the anti-corruption law.
“Some NGOs rock the boat,” he said. “We just want to develop them to be more effective because now our country is improved.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Sunday that a version of the NGO law has already been sent to the Council of Ministers for review.
“We have finished drafting the NGO law,” he said. “Soon the law will be shown in a [civil society] seminar for discussion.”
Serious discussions of an NGO law were last raised in 2006, when the Interior Ministry and the World Bank set to work on a new draft.
Proponents of the measure at that time pointed to the need for NGOs to be open to scrutiny and for any fakes or businesses masquerading as humanitarian organizations to be weeded out.
But NGOs then and now have expressed grave concern that such a measure would limit their rights.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said by telephone Sunday that the major problem with the 2006 version of the draft law was that it funneled all NGO funds through the Finance Ministry.
“It undermines our work if it is within the control of the Ministry of Finance…. We cannot be independent in that sense,” he said. “Imagine all the bureaucracy in the ministries, the bureaucracy and the corruption.”
He said he feared many NGOs would wind up taking the “easy road” by becoming “government-friendly,” which would be a “horrible mistake.”
“The government should not kid itself. If they want transparency, they should do the same for the Cambodian people,” he said.
In response to Hun Sen’s assertion that NGOs were stepping out of line to influence government policy, Ou Virak said that was precisely what NGOs were meant to do.
“NGOs should try to influence policy,” he said. “If they’re not doing that, then how can they cause any change?”
The best use of an NGO law would be to protect NGOs from the government, he added.
Ou Virak said he thought Hun Sen was picking up on the NGO law now because he can afford to process unpopular legislation after the election, when a muted backlash would have less of an impact on his public image.
Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said Sunday that other countries have laws to govern NGOs and that there might come a time in Cambodia when such a measure would be prudent.
For now, though, he said there were more pressing matters.
“Maybe in the future…. Now, the government has to decide other things, like the anti-corruption law,” he said.
He said that, at its best, the law might allow the government to work more seamlessly with NGOs, but that he was worried they were motivated instead by the desire to “use the law to disturb the actions of NGOs.”
Chan Soveth, chief monitor at local rights group Adhoc, also said that an NGO law should be far down on the list of government priorities.
“The government should look through to the corruption law and the court law,” he said, adding that he feared when the law was adopted it would shrink the space in which NGOs are able to work.
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said NGOs are already held accountable to the donors who give them funds and that they should be given more independence and space with which to do their jobs rather than less.
“We are very worried. We can see the government is gaining more and more control. This is not good news for civil society…. The space for democracy is being made more and more narrow,” she said.
She said the NGO law should also concern major donors, who she called upon to “come out from behind their closed door diplomacy” to refute the law.