A contentious draft law aimed at regulating Cambodia’s NGOs could be passed by the National Assembly as early as next month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday.
“[The draft law] is a matter of disagreement, but the government has had it drafted since 2012,” Hun Sen said during a speech at the Centre for Deaf and Mute Children in Phnom Penh. “It will pass through the Council of Ministers no later than May before it is sent to the National Assembly, and the draft law will be passed without any obstacles.”
The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, which has been in the works since at least 2006, has been a cause of concern for many activists who say the complex registration process and stringent annual reporting demands on finances and other activities are a thinly veiled attempt to curtail their freedom of movement.
Without naming names, Hun Sen asserted that the same NGOs calling for transparency in government must be candid about their operations and funding sources, saying they could otherwise hide that they are supporting or being bankrolled by international terrorist groups or organised crime syndicates.
“Previously, we dissolved one NGO suspected of financing terrorists, and another suspected of money laundering,” he said. “We are going to die if [they] are financed by al-Qaeda [or] ISIS, and we cannot control it.”
Hun Sen also lashed out at NGOs he said have attacked Cambodia’s human rights record and sent reports to the UN with the goal of obtaining funding from international donors.
“In 2005, during the ASEAN-UN Summit in New York, I informed [then-UN secretary-general] Kofi Annan that I didn’t expect a good human rights report on Cambodia, since a good report would mean no jobs for human rights activists in Cambodia. This is the reality,” he said.
Still, Hun Sen assured that the law was not meant to put NGOs out of business – just those that are not registered.
“If you are not registered, you will be handcuffed,” he said, adding later that “the aim of the law is not to bar the activities of NGOs; the aim of the law is to ensure transparency”.
While some activists agree that disclosing financials is necessary, others see the law as a bid to control a sector that has routinely picked up the slack in a country where many services normally performed by the government remain the domain of NGOs.
“It is legitimate and appropriate to require NGOs to disclose their sources of funding and how the funds are spent,” said Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia. “[But] there is concern that the purpose of this NGO law is to further restrict freedom and to control the activities of NGOs.”
In the view of Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) adviser Billy Tai, “Hun Sen has a vested interest in trying to legitimise the law, especially after the recent chatter around it as well as the [UN] human rights committee’s concluding observations.”
Ny Chakrya, head of local human rights NGO Adhoc, voiced concern that the law would simply limit the work of NGOs in the Kingdom.
“The government has always considered NGOs the enemy,” he said. “The criticism [of the government] by NGOs shows that the government has much work to do [in terms of] respecting human rights in Cambodia.”
Charya further insisted that there are already many relevant laws on the books that control NGOs, so there is no use passing a specific law to monitor them.