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NGO law clears cabinet as premier scraps two articles

The Council of Ministers yesterday approved a highly controversial draft law to regulate NGOs, with Prime Minster Hun Sen personally deleting two articles to “simplify” the registration process for civil society groups, according to a government spokesman.

The bill, green-lighted following a four-hour session, will be put to a vote next week at the National Assembly.

Speaking yesterday, government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed criticism by civil society, the opposition and international donors including the US that the draft law is unnecessary and should have been publicly released before its approval as “manipulative”.

Siphan, who posted sections of the previously unseen draft law on social media, declined to release the full version until next week, but said critics – which include US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour Scott Busby – would be “surprised” with its friendliness and flexibility.

“This draft is very mild, very friendly in the sense of helping NGOs and associations to form, which is guaranteed by the constitution,” Siphan said.

The law, in the works since at least 2006, has caused concern for many activists, who see its complex registration process and reporting demands as a veiled attempt to restrict their activities.

In response, Siphan said Hun Sen – who wants the law passed as soon as possible – had recommended two articles be scrapped to “reduce red tape”.

One, Siphan said, was a requirement that NGOs or associations seeking registration have “adequate funds” and also don’t allocate more than 25 per cent of their cash to administration.

The other concerned a requirement to register with multiple ministries.

Under the draft, Siphan said, local NGOs would register with the Ministry of Interior and foreign groups with the Foreign Ministry, with no requirement to lodge documents with the Cambodian Development Council.

In terms of submitting annual reports, organisations could provide a copy of what they send their donors, he added.

According to sections posted online regarding registration, local NGOs, among other requirements, must not copy, in their logo, official national symbols, previously registered logos or the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

International groups must apply at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a memorandum of understanding and supply information about their foreign associations, accreditation and budget details.

While acknowledging the National Assembly’s legislation commission, the bill’s next stop, is controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party, Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said she hoped several public consultation hearings would be organised.

“We don’t see a need for a law, and we have a strong position about protecting the roles and functions of civil society,” she added.

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