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People march through the street of Phnom Penh on Tuesday during a protest against the contentious draft law on NGOs. Vireak Mai

NGO law tweaks mulled

Government officials yesterday agreed to reconsider elements of a proposed NGO law, but ruled out further public consultation on the widely criticised legislation, signalling a final vote would be held next week.

The promise to review some provisions came during the government’s first public workshop on the proposed bill since 2011 – held yesterday morning – and was later backed at a meeting between three parliamentary commissions in the afternoon, according to a government official.

Interior Ministry Secretary of State Sak Setha said the proposed Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) would be sent back to the heads of relevant ministries for further talks.

Among the provisions up for reconsideration, he said, was the need to have five founding members, the ban on minors starting NGOs, the provision barring former leaders of deregistered organisations from starting new groups and the article requiring political neutrality.

“I could not tell exactly how many or what articles might change, because we have to bring all of these concerns to the heads of the ministries to decide,” Setha said.

However, further public discussions yesterday appeared unlikely and no significant postponement was announced.

CPP lawmaker and chair of the parliamentary Commission on Foreign Affairs Chheang Vun called yesterday’s workshop, which was boycotted by the opposition, “fruitful”.

He said the proposed bill would be submitted to the National Assembly’s standing committee on Friday, predicting a vote early next week.

Although holding out hope, opponents remain sceptical of significant changes being made, characterising yesterday’s four-hour public consultation at the National Assembly as seemingly “meaningless”.

“We are very pessimistic,” said Koul Panha, head of government watchdog Comfrel.

“When it goes to the National Assembly, I doubt there will be any big changes, just some words changed, small things.”

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) yesterday became the latest group to criticise the “draconian” law, saying its mandatory and vague registration process undermined essential rights.

“Ultimately, the law represents a tool to silence critical voices and crack down on political opponents – one which enables harassment of legitimate organisations that might dare express opposition to the ruling clique,” said APHR chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia.

During yesterday’s consultation, representatives of the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice and Finance ministries justified the legislation to members of civil society, diplomats and students.

Ministry of Justice secretary of state Keut Rith said the bill was “vital”, and would protect everyone’s rights.

The Interior Ministry’s Setha reassured small, unregistered community groups they wouldn’t be targeted under the bill, but added they could register to receive legal protection.

Nguon Sokha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, rejected claims that onerous reporting requirements for NGOs would restrict organisations if they had “nothing to hide”.

The European Union’s Charge d’Affaires Alain Vandersmissen told attendees the EU did not support the legislation, saying, although it acknowledged concerns over rogue NGOs, current legislation provided sufficient safeguards.

Following the meeting, NGO representatives, led by the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, held a press conference urging the government to halt the proposed bill.

Today, opponents of the law are expected to protest at Freedom Park, and members of the EU parliament will debate the legislation this week.

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