Concerned by Cambodia's suspension of a German-funded society advocating for the urban poor, nongovernmental organizations in the country have stepped up a campaign against a proposed law governing their activities.
Forty civil society bodies and umbrella groups condemned in a statement Friday the Cambodian government's decision suspending the operations of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) for five months effective Aug. 1, citing its failure to file certain documents.
"The use of a vague administrative technicality to suspend an organization is an alarmingly clear sign of how the Cambodian government intends to use the NGO Law to curb the activities of all associations and NGOs that advocate for the rights of marginalized groups within Cambodian society," the groups said in a joint statement.
"We condemn the suspension of STT in the strongest possible terms. The suspension of STT is completely arbitrary and a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and association, and an assault on human rights defenders," they said.
The groups, which include groups such as Oxfam, Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), and NGO Coalition to Address Trafficking & Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia, demanded an "immediate reversal" of the suspension.
"We regard this act to silence STT as an act of oppression against us all," they said.
STT, which has worked for six years providing services and advice to urban communities in Cambodia, has the German government’s development arm Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as one of its key funders.
The suspension came as the government considers the third draft of a controversial law designed to regulate nongovernmental organizations that has been criticized by NGOs and some donors as an an attempt to restrict freedom of association and speech as well as the growth of civil society.
"Civil society organizations, including associations and NGOs, are very concerned that the law in its third draft gives far-reaching power to the authorities to control the rights of citizens to organize and express themselves," said a statement issued by a group of NGOs on Aug. 3.
These rights are set out in the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties that Cambodia has signed, the statement said.
Speaking at the Washington offices of Oxfam America—an international aid and development group—Cooperation Committee of Cambodia executive director Borithy Lun said that Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior released the law's third draft on July 29.
The draft includes some recommendations made by NGOs in response to earlier drafts, but does not address all of their concerns, Lun said.
He urged Cambodia’s government to look again at the recommendations made by NGOs operating in the country.
“We feel it is very important for civil society to have space to operate, and for [civil-society groups and NGOs] to be able to continue to serve the poor and vulnerable people of Cambodia.”
Unclear provisions in the law, as it is now drafted, would make it difficult for NGOs and small, community-based organizations to work to help Cambodia’s poor, and would block the country’s economic development, Lun said.
Among these provisions, Lun said, is the requirement under Article 6 that all NGOs—both grassroots organizations and international groups—re-register with the government.
The proposed law will now go to Cambodia’s Council of Ministers and National Assembly for approval, then to the Senate for review, and then to the Constitutional Council, Lun said. Finally, it will be enacted by “endorsed royal assent” by the King.
The law in its final form should “enable” rather than restrict the operations of NGOs in Cambodia, Lun said.
“We have taken action in Cambodia to brief the members of parliament and brief the members of the Senate, sharing with them our concerns and our recommendation as to how this law should be amended to reflect the ‘enabling’ aspect, so that civil society can function to serve the people of Cambodia.”
But legislative action to approve the law now stands at “the eleventh hour” Lun said, and could move forward very quickly at this point.
Also speaking at Oxfam, Sue Vaughn—Freedom House senior program manager for Southeast Asia and International Religious Freedom—agreed that the law might now be enacted quickly, but said there may still be time to recommend changes.
It is in the Cambodian government’s own interest to protect “peaceful dissent, peaceful association, and peaceful assembly” in the country, as these will promote further development, Vaughn said.
“I think that Cambodia has had unprecedented peace in the last ten years. It has had unprecedented economic development and growth, and these are all good things. And we need to acknowledge those good things that have come out in the last ten years.”
A “vibrant” Cambodian civil society will lead to a vibrant Cambodian democracy and will attract foreign investors, Vaughn said.
Vaughn noted that Cambodia will take on the chairmanship of ASEAN next year.
“If Cambodia goes through with enacting a law that really represses its civil society, it is going to lose credibility—both in the region as well as in the international arena.”
Cambodia must demonstrate both to the international community and to its regional partners in Southeast Asia that it takes democracy seriously, Vaughn said.
Reported by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.