Cambodia’s parliament passed a controversial law on Monday on the regulation of nongovernmental organizations with unanimous approval by ruling-party lawmakers, amid a boycott by the opposition and a last-ditch attempt by protestors to convince the representatives to scrap the restrictive legislation.
All 68 members of parliament from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) passed the draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), which requires the 5,000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the developing country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and shut downs.
Fifty-five lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) boycotted to protest legislation they believe the government will use to silence its critics.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay told RFA’s Khmer Service during a call-in show Monday that his party boycotted the session to show that the draft law is an abuse of people’s basic rights and a violation of the constitution.
“We didn’t want to boycott it, but this is a serious law that will affect the national interest,” he said, adding that the law would devastate the country through the loss of key donor aid.
Koul Panha, director of the national rights group Comfrel, told RFA that the latest version of the NGO law draft did not include any recommendations from civil society groups, despite the holding of a public consultation on the draft law last week.
“The assembly lawmakers working on the NGO law didn’t give us enough time to discuss it,” he said. “The government claims that it wants to protect NGOs’ rights, but this [law] does not protect NGOs. If the government really meant it, it should have allowed debate from the beginning.”
Culture of dialogue
During RFA’s call-in show, a caller who gave his name as Chivoan questioned the CNRP’s commitment to protect voters amid the current “culture of dialogue” the two political parties had agreed to promote earlier this year to end a bitter conflict.
“I don’t want to talk about the CPP because any laws they are working on are to protect their interests,” he said. “[CNRP president] Sam Rainsy used to say that when the CNRP joined the National Assembly [parliament], the party would have a balance of power, so why did they allow the CPP to approve the law?” he said.
But Son Chhay responded that the culture of dialogue didn’t work with the NGO draft law.
“We don’t know the reasons behind the CPP’s motive to push the law forward,” he said, adding that the CNRP could not have affected the vote because its lawmakers constitute a minority in parliament.
Hun Many, a CPP lawmaker and Hun Sen’s son, defended the law, which has nine chapters and 39 articles, saying it would promote good cooperation between the government and NGOs.
CPP lawmaker Lor Kheng also praised the law during the four-hour parliamentary session that preceded the vote, saying that the country needed it.
Sar Kheng, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, denounced the law’s critics, including the European Parliament, which adopted a resolution on Friday, warning that Cambodia could lose up to U.S. $700 million in development aid if the bill passed.
“The law is a gentle law,” he said. “We have spent about 20 years producing it, so if we compare this law to other laws, it has been examined very carefully, and we accepted many recommendations."
Hun Sen, who voted for the law, did not speak with reporters after the assembly’s session.
Protest outside parliament
Outside parliament, thousands of riot police set up roadblocks to prevent hundreds of rights groups who opposed the law to get too near to the National Assembly building in the capital Phnom Penh.
A villager from Kampong Chhnang province in central Cambodia, who participated in the rally, said lawmakers betrayed voters by passing the legislation.
“Once they have power in their hands, they do things differently from what they have promised,” she told RFA. “They are spending our money, but they are making laws that are harmful to us."
Ny Chakriya, chief investigator of the national rights group Adhoc, said the government pushed for the passage of the law because it blamed NGOs for the disputed election results in 2013.
He said the adoption of the law would further decrease the government’s popularity.
“The government forgot that NGOs didn’t cause the ruling party to lose votes,” he said. “The government lost votes by itself.”
The United States, United Nations and international rights groups also have opposed the draft law, which they argue will restrict NGOs and create obstacles for them.
“There is no doubt that the draft law’s restrictions on freedom of association and expression, in contravention of international law and standards, will severely impair civil society’s ability to carry out its vital work,” said Kingsley Abbott, international league adviser for the International Commission of Jurists based in Geneva, Switzerland.
The group said the some of the draft law’s most problematic provisions are the excessive documentation it requires for the registration of NGOs; arbitrary powers of the interior and foreign affairs ministers to deny or revoke registration if NGOs are accused of endangering peace, stability or public security; requirement that NGOs be politically neutral; and sweeping provisions for the suspension and dissolution of NGOs.
The draft law must now be adopted by the upper house of parliament and get a seal of approval from King Norodom Sihamoni before it becomes law.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.