PRIME Minister Hun Sen announced Tuesday that the government has moved ahead with drafting a law to regulate the activities of NGOs, prompting fresh concerns that the proposed legislation will be used to clamp down on the activities of advocacy groups.
At a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the cooperation between NGOs and the government, Hun Sen said the presence of 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia requires new rules to weed out groups engaged in “opposition” politics.
“NGOs demand that the government shows transparency, but they can’t show the same to us,” he said.
“We respect the local and international NGOs whose activities serve humanity and help the government of Cambodia.... They will not be threatened by this draft law. But we believe that some NGOs whose activities seem to serve the opposition party will be afraid of it.”
Hun Sen also said that after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, very few NGOs came to Cambodia’s assistance due to an aid embargo among Western nations, but that now there were thousands of groups, some of which used their NGO status as a cloak to “play politics and support the opposition party”.
The premier’s comments echoed statements made at a cabinet meeting in September last year, in which he expressed concerns that NGO funding could come from “terrorist groups”.
Despite Hun Sen’s assurances that the new law will not restrict the scope of NGO activities, some civil society activists are concerned it could conflate advocacy with political affiliation.
“Some associations and NGOs are mandated to do national and international advocacy on human rights and other issues, but it should not be concluded that these groups are affiliated with any political parties,” said Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho. “NGOs are by nature nongovernmental and non-political.”
She said that from communications with the ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs, Licadho had learned that the draft law will cover both international and local associations.
“I do not understand why a law for associations and NGOs needs to be drafted to combat terrorism and other crimes when existing laws already cover such crimes,” she added.
Sin Somuny, executive director of Medicam, a national umbrella organisation for health-sector NGOs, said it was fair to ask that NGOs practice what they preach in terms of transparency, but that the potentially broad definition of “political interference” made the new law a hazard for advocacy groups.
“In America, NGOs advocate for policy change – are these kinds of things considered ‘politics’? If they are, what kind of role can civil society play?” he said.
Sin Somuny, a speaker at Tuesday’s ceremony, said that though NGO activists and opposition politicians often fall on the same side of arguments, their relationship is “ambiguous” and did not indicate any allegiance.
Chith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said he “welcomed” the premier’s comments that the law would not restrict the NGO activities but could not comment further, as he had not read the draft law.