PHNOM PENH — The highly anticipated fourth draft of the controversial law covering activities of associations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cambodia which was released on December 12 has drawn criticism from various quarters of the country’s civil society for its lack of clarity.
Civil society organisations at Cooperation Committee for Cambodia meeting held on December 15 issued a joint media release saying that a primary concern with the law on associations and NGOs (LANGO) is that it “continues to be a restrictive piece of legislation”, making it clear that the government wants to control every movement of estimated 2,000 civil society groups.
LANGO is believed to be a tit-for-tat reaction to a former US Ambassador Carol Rodley’s 2005 speech that said that Cambodia lost $500 million to corruption annually during a concert sponsored by USAID and attended by approximately 50,000 people to celebrate a petition for an anti-corruption law which was adopted in 2010.
Cambodia suffered nearly four years of an Ultra-Maoist regime which killed nearly 2 million people, and more than a decade of post-Khmer Rouge civil war. When the United Nationals Transitional Authority took control of Cambodia between 1992 to 1994 to reinforce a peace agreement, NGOs started to flourish and and established an ambivalent relationship with the government.
Seen as a price to pay in order to keep the foreign aid dollars flowing in, experts believe that the Cambodian government has so far tolerated even a vocal civil society which exerts a lot of political pressure as often they point out facts and figures the government tries to hide from the public. While NGOs workers support and engage in development work, they are in a way supporting the country’s economy in response to the failure of the state in Cambodia.
This has made Cambodia “a safe haven” for civil society groups despite the ruling government’s tight grip on power legitimized internationally by its apparent tolerance for open criticism. The current situation has been fertile for NGOs to prosper, some say. In 2010, the international community pledged $1.1 billion dollars in aid for Cambodia, seen as an increase from the previous year’s commitment of $990 million in 2009.
However, despite good work, scores of NGOs reportedly fall into inefficiencies and involve in practices of corruption when dealing with the government, making them become a part of the corrupt system.
Cambodian officials have until now claimed LANGOis necessary to regulate the country’s sometimes unwieldy NGO sector. But it’s known that the registration has been widely criticized for granting the government the power to dissolved organizations on vague pretexts and plague small groups with onerous registration procedures.
Although the fourth draft has shelved 20 previous articles and made several improvements, “appeal rights” were not adequately addressed in the latest draft, making it easy for the government to clamp down on NGOs operating within the country. The draft also lacked an appeal process for organisations whose registration is denied.
New procedures in the fourth draft will bring the entire civil society within the purview of government regulation — through registration requirements and appeal avenues — and also proclaims the discretionary power of the government to shut down any associations or NGOs.
The latest revision creates two registration procedures — one for domestic associations and NGOs and another for foreign associations and NGOs. The draft only permits domestic associations and organisations to appeal to the court.
According to the draft, domestic associations and NGOs can be freely established without getting a permit or giving a notification, but they cannot acquire legal status if they do not register with the Ministry of Interior.
Therefore, domestic NGOs that do not register, cannot hire staff, have bank accounts, rent or buy office space or enter into contractual agreements necessary for their operations — a contradictory provision which has raised eyebrows on whether registration is truly optional.
“This really means that it is mandatory to register with the Ministry of Interior, otherwise we will have no legal entity,” an NGO representative told the Phnom Penh Post at the December 15 meeting.
Foreign NGOs face even more restrictions in the latest draft of the law. Article 17 of the draft law states that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may end a memorandum of understanding with a foreign NGO if it “engage[s] in activities which damage peace, stability, and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, customs and traditions of the Cambodian national society.”
A country director of an international NGO, told on the condition of anonymity that his organisation is apprehensive about its future operations in the country as the government seems to be making it even more difficult for them to operate.
“We are not sure, and very concerned. We are not ready for what comes next,” he said.
The first draft of LANGO was made public almost exactly a year ago in December 2010 to enable the government to regulate groups operating in the country. Contents of the three earlier drafts were widely rejected by local and foreign experts.
The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), another prominent NGO, saw LANGO as a threat towards the civic society and donors, according to Cambodian daily (not Cambodia Daily, but Raksmey Kampuchea Thmey Daily) Raksmey Kampuchea Thmey.
But the Ministry of Interior has stood its ground on LANGO.
“If the NGO law violates the Constitution, show me the points,” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng was quoted saying in the Phnom Penh Post.
“If you want to have rights and freedoms, then those things must be written in law. When I follow you, I am wrong, but if I don’t, I am still wrong,” Sar said.
The civil society has about one week to provide their feedback on the draft law before it is passed. Chheang Vun, a member of the National Assembly draft law committee, said that it was the obligation of the government to create a registration system for associations and organisations established in Cambodia.
“We need to respect the rights and obligations of each other,” Chheang Vun was quoted as saying in the Phnom Penh Post. “Do not abuse this opportunity or lose it.”
Now updated story from the Phnom Penh Post: http://bit.ly/1JvtwUy