Student Mock Parliament Sends NGO Law Back

On Friday, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet could approve a controversial law that aims to regulate the country’s multimillion-dollar NGO sector and which has been years in the works, clearing its way for an imminent vote by the National Assembly’s lawmakers.

But if those lawmakers were to think anything like the 123 students who voted on the draft during a mock youth parliament at Phnom Penh’s Zaman University on Sunday, it will fail.

Taking on five of the draft’s more controversial articles, the mock parliament, hosted by the Youth Coalition for Unity and Development (YCUD), approved two but voted down three.

Seng Rithy, the coalition’s board chairman, said in a statement released by the group that Cambodian youth need a forum to express their opinions.

“It’s important that we keep talking about this draft law and that we can bring greater awareness among young people about what it means in [the] Cambodian context if this law is passed,” he said.

More than 300 local and international NGOs and associations have joined a recent petition against the 2011 draft of the law—the most recent version available—which would require them to register with the government and file regular activity and financial reports.

They fear the government could use vaguely worded sections to close down groups it doesn’t like. The government says it wants NGOs to be more open about their finances in order to prevent any terrorist financing from seeping into the country.

Claiming interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has reprimanded both the U.N. and the U.S ambassador in the past week for suggesting that the government have more meetings with the NGOs before putting the draft to a vote.

The articles the students voted down included one that would limit the share of their budgets that foreign NGOs could spend on overheads to 25 percent and another that would let the government shut them down for activities that harm the “culture, customs and traditions” of society.

After all the votes had been tallied, Ork Sreyrath, a third-year student at the Royal University of Law and Economics, said she particularly opposed the financial restrictions.

“It is too low and would leave staff with small salaries, so it should be increased to 50 percent to make them work more effectively,” she said.

Sum Socheat, however, a student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said he voted for the article that would let the government shut down an NGO for harming Cambodian culture or jeopardizing “peace, stability and public order.”

“When they want to campaign, rally or protest, they have to bear responsibility when violence occurs,” he said.

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