Rights groups want Cambodia’s parliament to hold a consultation with civil society about a controversial draft law on nongovernmental organizations approved Friday by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has long demonstrated animosity toward organizations outside of state control.
Local NGOs said the government approved the most recent draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) without consulting them, fearing that the legislation will restrict their activities in the developing country.
Soeung Saroeun, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, an NGO that promotes good governance, said the government should have widely discussed the draft law with the NGOs before sending it to parliament.
Nevertheless, he said he hoped that the National Assembly would allow NGOs to provide their input before passing it.
“We used to discuss this issue with parliamentarian Chheang Vun [spokesman of parliament] and with other members of the Fifth National Assembly Commission,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “We hope that they accept our consultation, and we expect that our three points of concern will be resolved.”
The three matters in question are restrictions on NGOs’ community activities, uncertainty about whether unregistered NGOs could continue operating, and the disbandment of NGOs, Soeung Saroeun said.
Rights groups fear that the draft law incorporates few amendments to an earlier draft released in 2011, which was later withdrawn following heavy local and international criticism.
20 years to draft law
Although NGOs said they have not yet seen the latest version of the document, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government had discussed the draft law several times with the groups as well as with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“We spent 20 years on drafting this law and made changes and collected data [as needed] before finally coming up with this [approved] draft law,” he told RFA, adding that Hun Sen has said that the legislation aims to protect the interests of NGOs.
Two main changes in the draft law will help ease the performance of civil society’s work by cutting down on the red tape of setting up NGOs as well as reducing restrictions on their activities, Phay Siphan said.
The government would send the draft law to parliament in one week, he said.
About 5,000 NGOs operate in the impoverished nation, actively assisting with its development in the areas of human rights, democracy, health care, social work and agriculture.
Many domestic and international NGOs have said they find it odd that the Cambodian government has claimed it is creating the law to protect their interests, but yet has excluded them from participating in drafting the law.
At the end of last month, Phay Siphan said the government would make the recent draft available to NGOs after it had been reviewed by the Council of Ministers and signed off on by Hun Sen.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.