The most contentious point in the draft law on associat-ions and NGOs – mandatory registration – is gone, a Ministry of Interior official announced at a conference on aid effectiveness yesterday morning.
The ministry’s deputy director of political affairs, Mey Narath, also said the draft had been simplified.
“We cancelled many articles. Now we just have 38 articles and 10 chapters, down from 11 chapters and 58 articles before,” he said.
Soeung Saroeun, head of programs at the Co-operation Committee for Cambodia, said he was told last night that the decision to amend the draft law – which had sparked alarm that the government would use it to silence its critics – “came from the top leadership”.
The ministers of interior and foreign affairs would also invite representatives of civil society to meet with them or their secretaries of state by the middle of next month to discuss the fourth draft of the law, Soeung Saroeun said.
A joint statement from the CCC and the NGO Forum, however, expressed a level of wariness about the government’s apparent change of heart.
“We will remain cautious until we see the fourth draft in writing. Mandatory registration must be removed for all civil-society groups, not just certain organisations,” the joint statement said.
Soeung Saroeun said registration might still be mandatory for groups that wanted to be a legal entity.
CCC executive director Lun Bority said he was waiting for a copy of the fourth draft so he could carefully examine its language. “Is it a real change or a political move?” he asked.
Caroline McCausland, country director of Action Aid, was more optimistic, calling the dropping of mandatory registration “the most significant and most positive development” in the draft law.
“Cambodia wants to have a better standing on the international stage. It’s excellent timing,” McCausland said, pointing to the global meeting in Busan, South Korea, next month on aid effectiveness.
She said Cambodia had made significant progress on implementing commitments for better aid effectiveness based on “democratic ownership of development” agreed to at previous global meetings.
“I honestly believe they are showing that they value civil society.
“It’s fitting that this announcement came at a conference about ensuring effectiveness and accountability in development programs,” Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum on Cambodia, said.
“Civil society organisations must have an enabling environment if they are to be effective and accountable. The removal of mandatory registration will help ensure that such an environment continues to exist in Cambodia.”
Other NGO staff and donor representatives said they believed the government has been “genuinely surprised” and “caught off guard” by the intense advocacy, within Cambodia and globally, against the legislation.
This has included lobbying pressure applied by donors who fund about half the government’s budget.
Soeung Saroeun suggested as much, saying the government had realised that the legislation – which threatened to alienate donors and undermine its development partners – would ultimately be self-defeating.
“This government relies on funding from donors,” he said.