Cambodia’s government on Friday accused local civil society groups of “stirring up trouble” by demanding that it wait to submit to parliament proposed legislation they say could limit their work in the country and insisting they be included in the drafting process.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last month that the draft Law on the Association and the Non-Governmental Organization (LANGO) would be passed by the National Assembly, or parliament, by the end of May.
Since then, repeated requests for the government to publicize the current draft of the law for consultation have been refused.
On Friday, local and international NGOs held a press conference in the capital Phnom Penh addressing their concerns over the LANGO, which they said would restrict freedom of expression and undermine democracy in Cambodia.
They called for the Council of Ministers to hold off on submitting the draft law to the National Assembly until it undergoes scrutiny and revision to ensure that problems with a 2011 draft—which was released to a storm of criticism—are addressed.
Press and Quick Reaction spokesman for the Council of Ministers Tith Sothea responded to the proposal by saying it was “too late” to postpone submission of the LANGO and suggested that NGOs pass their recommendations on the draft law to parliament.
“Civil society can send their recommendations on any shortcoming in the draft law to the National Assembly to avoid interrupting the legislative process, but it is up to the legislature to decide whether to accept them,” he said.
“Some NGOs seem to care only about their own personal interests. They stir up trouble and try to block the law from passing, but they push for other laws to be made when they have not even been drafted.”
National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that a parliamentary commission would open a seminar to “all concerned parties” once lawmakers had received the LANGO from the government.
But the Phnom Penh Post quoted NGO Forum executive director Tek Vannara as saying that “this opportunity is not enough.”
“We are asking for at least two to three months of wide public consultations,” he said.
Critics say Cambodia’s 2011 draft law was a disguised attempt by the government to curtail the independence of NGOs by imposing a complex registration and stringent annual reporting process.
Tek Vannara told the Post that the 2011 draft law “had several issues that still need to be fixed.”
“If something comparable to it gets passed, then it will be very problematic,” he said, adding that the government should release the new draft and “show more responsibility, openness and accountability to the people.”
Last week, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned a group of officials from the United Nations to end their criticism of the LANGO and refrain from interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs following an op-ed they wrote slamming the government for proceeding on the draft law without consulting civil society.
The ministry also lashed out at outgoing U.S. Ambassador William Todd for criticism he made about the LANGO in a recent article, dismissing his comments as “extremely insolent.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan has insisted the most recent draft would be made available to NGOs, but said it must first be reviewed by the Council of Ministers and signed off on by Hun Sen.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.