The other day I had the honour of attending a meeting at the Ministry of Environment.
Representatives from NGOs, donors, lawyers and embassies discussed the timeline of a future Code on Environmental Protection.
The Minister himself chaired the meeting and delivered an opening speech.
He very frankly spoke about the poor situation of Cambodia’s environment, about a lack of knowledge and awareness, about corruption that leads to pollution, about negative effects of dams on the rural population and about the limitations of his own ministry.
But he has a clear vision about the promotion of renewable energies, about eco-friendly tourism, about the role that companies have to play with regard to environmental protection and about capacity building in his ministry.
He called on civil society organisations and donors to actively support the drafting of this new Law on Environmental Protection because it can only be developed by a joint effort of all stakeholders.
In the end, a clear timeline was agreed upon and the budget was critically examined and approved.
It was a very successful meeting – maybe one of the most fruitful meetings that I have attended for many months.
But during the entire meeting I wondered whether there will be any NGOs left that could cooperate with the ministry after the new Law on Associations and NGOs, LANGO, has come into effect.
LANGO will require political neutrality from all NGOs and associations.
So how can NGOs join the drafting process of a governmental law if they are required to stay neutral?
In future, neither the ruling party nor the opposition party can invite any NGO or association for information sharing as they would then breach the neutrality rule.
One might wonder why the government wants to restrict political work of NGO thus breaching its commitment to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech enshrined in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of which Cambodia is a state party to.
And it remains unclear why the government wants to put more burdens on NGOs regarding reporting, registration and prior informing about activities than on any company that is working in Cambodia.
Non-governmental organisations often take positions that are contrary to the policies formulated by the government of the day.
This is why they are called watchdogs.
That by itself cannot be used to portray NGO’s action as being detrimental to the national interest, security or tradition.
The state may not accept the views of civil rights activists, but that by itself cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent.
Criticism, by an individual, may not be palatable, even so, it should not be muzzled.
The draft LANGO has been on hold for four years.
So there is no need to rush it through parliament now. Instead, all stakeholders, including political parties, public administration, civil society and donors, should engage in a meaningful dialogue and a consultation process.
Nowadays, there is much talk about the so called “Culture of Dialogue” between the two big parties.
But dialogue should also take place with civil society.
If LANGO enters into force, no activity whatsoever will be possible without the prior registration as an NGO or association.
But one can seriously doubt that the Ministry of Interior will have the capacity to deal with the registration of several thousand small initiatives who work at the local level in the fields of education, health, farming, women’s empowerment, language training etc.
Last week, a small student initiative did not get permission to organise a short bicycle tour in and around Phnom Penh.
They wanted to raise awareness for environmental issues.
Phnom Penh City Hall denied the permission on the ground that they are not a registered NGO.
If in future all these small initiatives that work for the benefit of the people must stop their activities, Cambodia’s development will be seriously hampered.
Ali Al-Nasani is the country director of the German Heinrich Boell Foundation, which has been working in Cambodia for more than 20 years.