A Ministry of Interior official who has been central to the drafting of the government’s NGO law lashed out today at a United States diplomat for comments he made about the controversial legislation on a visit this week, while talks with NGOs continued at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a letter to Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary in the bureau of democracy, human rights and labour at the US State Department, Nouth Sa An, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said he was “disappointed” by Baer’s remarks on the law, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Post.
“The consultation is still ongoing between the Government and the NGOs,” Nouth Sa An wrote.
“Your statement ‘we don’t see the need for the law at this point’ now has broken the consultation process.”
Nouth Sa An said the government believed the presence of NGOs following the 1993 elections was an “asset”, but that by 2009, they had “mushroomed to more than 2000 organisations”.
“Subsequently the rule of law is the necessity for Cambodia to ensure the activities of the national and international NGOs to be protected from the unnecessary activities that may hamper their objectivity,” Nouth Sa An wrote.
NGOs have expressed concern that the government would use the law to curb activity it deemed “political” or overtly critical, arguing that the draft allows excessive and arbitrary government authority without recourse to outside appeal.
Mark Wenig, US embassy spokesman, referred a request for comment to the statements made by Baer on Tuesday.
Baer had said one of his “chief aims” in his visit was to learn more about the draft legislation and meet with government and civil society to discuss it.
At the end, he maintained the US position: That it sees no necessity for the law, and urges the government to continue consulting widely on it with civil society.
Nouth Sa An and Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, could not be reached for comment.
Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said consultations were still ongoing, and he met today with representatives of Medicam and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, while a colleague discussed the issue with NGO Forum.
He declined to comment further, preferring to “wait until everything is finished”.
He said he would meet Anne Höglund, the Swedish ambassador, about the law tomorrow.
Chith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had agreed, if in word only, to an important change to the law that would allow coalitions between international and domestic NGOs to operate if the lead person is Cambodian.
Chith Sam Ath said NGOs still hope to see a second draft of the law and have a chance to provide further comments on it.