The National Assembly yesterday passed the controversial NGO law, amid a boycott by the opposition and street demonstrations against the widely criticised legislation.
After almost four hours of speeches commending the legislation and criticising their absent opposition counterparts, 68 Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers voted at about 12pm to send the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) to the Senate.
Outside, a beefed-up security presence kept protesters from descending on the National Assembly.
A force of more than 100 security personnel, armed with shields and batons, blocked a peaceful march of some 300 people who had gathered at nearby Wat Ounalom to march on parliament.
Below, Koul Panha, of election watchdog Comfrel, lays out what he considers the most troubling aspects of the recently passed law.
Domestic and foreign associations or NGOs must register with the government to work.
If they fail to do so, local groups face fines of around $2,500 while foreigners can be evicted. In both instances, staff face further criminal prosecution.
“It is going to criminalise the freedom of association and assembly.”
The law’s vague definitions of NGOs and associations could be used as a catchall to target any association of people, no matter how small or informal, Panha said.
“Working groups, community based organisations, platforms, neighbourhood clubs . . . they can all be interpreted as NGOs.’’
The Interior and Foreign ministries have total discretion over the registration process and can deregister groups who contravene the law.
Groups can be blocked or deregistered if their activities jeopardise peace, stability and public order or harm national security, unity, culture or traditions.
“They can target any NGO if they don’t like them.’’
Registered groups are required to remain “politically neutral” or face deregistration.
“NGOs do a lot of advocacy for human rights and democracy; the government can interpret this as political and terminate groups.”
Voicing concerns held by hundreds of NGOs, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, the group demanded the law be scrapped.
Inside, Interior Minister Sar Kheng dismissed claims the bill contravened Cambodia’s constitution and international laws and rejected calls for further consultation.
Insisting the bill ensured legal protection for NGOs and associations, Kheng said the law had been in the pipeline for 20 years and he saw “no reason” to delay.
“I cannot understand why some other foreign countries are also against this law.
We have prepared this law based on their law. Why can they have [such a law] and Cambodia cannot?” Kheng said.
According to critics, the legislation, comprising nine chapters and 39 articles, gives the government sweeping powers to restrict civil society, freedom of association and freedom of expression.
The government, however, says the sector needs regulating to stop rogue operators receiving financing from terrorists groups.
During his speech, Kheng acknowledged the obligation for groups to remain politically neutral could be widely interpreted but maintained that NGOs should be nonaligned.
“If NGOs want to do politics, they can turn themselves into a political party and we will not ban them, but if they are an organisation, they must be neutral.”
Head of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee Suon Bunsak said the battle against the “restrictive” law wasn’t over.
“Civil society will ask for the official document for further legal checks so we can prepare advocacy strategies in order to amend or cancel the law,” Bunsak said.
He added that he would petition the Senate, Constitutional Council and the King, asking for the law to be halted, and would also seek help from the international community.
Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers – who last week walked out of the only public consultation held on the bill since 2011 – extended their boycott to yesterday’s vote.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann rejected comments by CPP lawmaker Sous Yara, made during the session, that the CNRP failed to represent their constituents by not debating the law.
“There was no meaningful public consultation,” Sovann said.
“We boycotted because the draft law did not reflect the will of civil society, the will of people and the will of the country.”
Sovann said the opposition did not plan to lodge an objection with the Constitutional Council because it was “CPP-controlled”.
“We will try our best to win the [next] election and then amend the law,” Sovann said.
Independent observer Ou Virak, founder of policy think-tank the Future Forum, disagreed with the opposition’s boycott but added the lack of meaningful debate on the law showed parliamentary procedure needed reform.
“It is a bit annoying when they keep on walking out; they should make a statement very loud in the National Assembly and vote ‘no’.
They should be on record,” Virak said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING SHAUN TURTON