In a surprise move, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed Wednesday to delay by two years the adoption of a controversial law to regulate non-governmental organizations (NGOs), saying it would give more time for the government and NGO officials to come to an agreement on the issue.
Hun Sen’s announcement came after officials from the Ministry of Interior and NGO representatives recently failed to reach a deal on a draft law before submission to Cambodia’s cabinet for approval.
The government recently unveiled the fourth version of the “Law on Associations and NGOs” to the NGO community which says it still contains clauses that would allow the government to exert influence over NGO activities and limit their freedom.
Speaking at a university graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that despite a number of sit downs between rights groups and government officials, no conclusions had been reached.
He added that if discussions fail to yield an agreed upon draft law by the end of the year, negotiations would be allowed to continue until 2014.
The prime minister denied accusations that provisions in the draft law aim to pressure NGOs and said the government would undertake all efforts to ensure that the final version would be acceptable to both parties.
“We must adopt this law. If we truly are a dictatorial government, we wouldn’t even need to collect recommendations from civil society organizations,” Hun Sen said.
“Please stop using the word ‘dictator.’ If we were dictators we would have pushed the law through already.”
Hun Sen went on to say that the government has complied with a provision in the constitution—Article 42— which states that all citizens have the right to establish NGOs and political parties. He added that the constitution would need to be amended if Cambodia’s NGOs want the government to abandon the draft law in its entirety.
Last week a group of international human rights organizations issued a joint statement saying that any revisions to the draft law should involve “meaningful consultation with civil society organizations” and support their activities instead of providing a basis by which they might be shut down or refused the right to register.
NGO Forum Executive Director Chhit Samath told RFA that he welcomed Hun Sen’s decision.
“This shows that the NGOs and the government are working as partners with an aim to continue discussions and produce the draft law,” he said, adding that there remain several articles in the draft law that are too “vague” and need to be addressed.
Independent political commentator Lao Monghay said Hun Sen had softened his stance, which he called “a positive sign for Cambodia.”
Lao Monghay said that Hun Sen had met with strong objections to the draft law from villagers and members of the international community, which may have led him to change his mind.
The Ministry of Interior first drafted the NGO law in 1994. The fourth version of the draft law was submitted to NGO officials on Dec. 19, containing 34 articles and 9 chapters.
U.S. embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said Cambodia requires a thriving NGO community to sow the seeds of democracy in the country.
“Cambodia needs strong civil societies to help strengthen democracy,” he said. “We are encouraging the government to adopt laws that promote freedom rather create an obstruction to civil society’s activities.”
Meanwhile, a court Tuesday charged a Cambodian opposition leader with using his parliamentary privileges to help a party supporter escape police custody.
The move came after Cambodia’s National Assembly ruled that opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) lawmaker Chan Cheng would be stripped of his immunity, clearing the way for the court in Kandal province to prosecute him.
Chan Cheng fled to Paris following the decision, which was made after the National Assembly convened on Dec. 20, making him the third SRP politician to be stripped of his immunity after Mu Sochua and party leader Sam Rainsy. Sam Rainsy is also currently living in exile in Paris.
Three other SRP lawmakers have resigned from their positions in protest over what they say are failed election reforms.
Prosecutors in Kandal have accused Chan Cheng of aiding a suspect who fled from custody at the provincial court, a charge the lawmaker has denied. The National Assembly convened to decide on his case after receiving a request from the Ministry of Justice.
Speaking from Paris, Chan Cheng told RFA that the assembly’s decision to strip his immunity was politically motivated. He added that the move was taken ahead of Senate and commune elections set for 2012.
“I haven’t committed any mistakes, I helped my constituency as a lawmaker,” he said. “The assembly’s move was politically motivated.”
Chan Cheng said he didn’t assist in releasing the villager in question from his jail cell, but only watched over him after he left the prison to prevent against his illegal detention. The escaped villager is a SRP commune councilor.
Chan Cheng said he is seeking an intervention from the international community to pressure the Cambodian government into restoring his immunity.
Cambodia-based rights group ADHOC issued a statement last week expressing concern over the potential for political persecutions in Cambodia ahead of the upcoming election period, noting that the national assembly, judicial system and other state institutions have been pressuring rights groups and political activists.
ADHOC said the removal of Chan Cheng’s immunity has “dealt a blow to democracy” in the country.
In response to Chan Cheng’s suggestion that his immunity was stripped for political reasons, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday accused SRP officials of threatening commune councilors in exchange for votes for SRP Senate candidates.
In contrary, civil rights groups claim that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is using intimidation against the SRP ahead of commune and general elections.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.