Editor's Note: The head of a prominent Cambodian human rights organization has called on Cambodia’s Senate, Western donors, and Cambodian citizens to prevent the enactment a controversial so-called NGO law following its passing in the National Assembly last week. In an interview with VOA Khmer, Naly Pilorge, director of human rights organization LICADHO says the effects of the measure would reach beyond NGOs and discourage any form of citizen mobilization. “It is not an NGO law. It’s an associations and NGO law. This law forces every group that serves an interest to their members to register.” She said the new law would practically put an end to the growth of “grassroots citizen groups”, which the activist describes as a recent phenomenon in Cambodian society and a product of two decades of civil society work in the country. Naly disputes the government’s view that NGOs are currently operating “in a vacuum,” saying over 300 existing laws regulate their operations. She says the speed and secrecy surrounding the passing of the law left little room and time for mobilization against the law. She called on the country’s majority youth population to take to social media to protest against the law, which is usually shortened there to #LANGO.
Below is the full phone interview between VOA Khmer's Sophat Soeung in Washington and Naly Pilorge in Phnom Penh about why she thinks the currnt law would be bad for Cambodia's future.
VOA Khmer: As the head of the one of the largest human right organizations in Cambodia that has worked for over two decades, what do you think has been sort of the biggest values and the biggest contribution of a relatively free space for NGOs to work in the country for the past 20 years?
Naly Pilorge: I mean, first and foremost, the birth of civil society is fairly new in Cambodia because even prior to the Khmer Rouge, there wasn't civil society, so, you know, the establishment of the first NGOs and later on union and grassroots groups has been very important in Cambodia for the past two decades. From our point of view, being working in a human right organization, our main role has been to be a venue for people to come to when they’ve exhausted other government institutions and also to ensure that we raise human right issues whether it’s land grabbing or trafficking to the public for debate, and also documentation. So, unlike our past, it's stays. It can be found on the Internet. It can be read by children. It can be read by youth. It can be read by adults. So, I think being a witness and recording the issues and also ensure that the issues are raised for the public to debate on, especially in this time when the technology allows you, allows citizens to have a say in the future with smart phones and other tools. It's becoming very important to have this type of work done by NGOs and civil society.
VOA Khmer: So, just to follow up on your point about NGOs, especially human rights and advocacy NGOs providing this last resort for Cambodian people. Over the past 20 years, if I look at some of the reports, it seems that the human rights situation has in some ways worsened, or fluctuated, I would say, but from your perspective, how much have the advocacy NGOs – human rights NGOs – achieved if the situation has sort of still remained to these days quite dire?
Naly Pilorge: It's very difficult within even two decades to make improvement, and in Cambodia it's very difficult to define success or achievement, but I think the fact that you can find information about Cambodia about land issues, about trafficking, about abuses committed on women and children, about restrictions to protests that and so on. That in itself is an achievement. And particular in Cambodia, with our past, which for the most part has been erased. And so that in itself I think it's quite important. And in Cambodia now the largest group are youth, we have up to maybe 65 percent of people under 30, so these are people that are shaping our future. They want to move, we want to move into the future and therefore, trying to render our government accountable and making sure that citizens can debate issues happening in our country. So I think there are many discussions [that] can be set about whether the human rights situation has regressed or improved and I think it's a bit of both. I think what now is important is that debates continue to happen; accountability, monitoring and advocacy continues.
VOA Khmer: Before I jump into the NGO law and youth specifically, I want to clarify a point you made about the existence of NGOs as unprecedented in Cambodian history. Is that what you were saying? Does that sort of hold the potential or something, more special as in sort of “organic Cambodian democracy” that could emerge as a result of that?
Naly Pilorge: Yes, I mean prior to UNTAC coming, there was very low civil society in the 1950s and 1960s. Cambodia was ruled under a monarchy, so with the arrival of the UN, NGOs established, later on unions and grassroots groups. And so in a real democracy the role of civil society is crucial in every sector, including the business sector. I mean not just government but also [the] business sector. I mean you've seen in most developed countries, civil society is definitely an important stakeholder in policy and reform and the future of that country. So, you know, Cambodia is not different. We need civil society to continue and I think with NGOs it’s quite limited. What is more exciting in Cambodia is the growth of grassroots citizen groups – farmers, youth, monks, land community, LGBTs. That is the exciting part. People make changes; NGOs don't. So the growth of these citizen groups and grassroots groups that must continue and that is important to preserve.
VOA Khmer: That's a very interesting point and I want to give the government perspective on this after twodecades, Cambodia, I guess, is uniquely having according to the government over 4,000 NGOs and associations and you did mention sort of growth of citizen groups. As a result, the government says it needs some kinds of regulation. In addition to that, it seems after 20 years, there are some state institutions that you mentioned earlier that are starting to be developed. It sounds almost like this is a transition that the government is seeing as a transition of citizens maybe slightly more reliable on the government institutions? That's why the law is needed and it would strengthen cooperation. But what is your response to that and what are your biggest concerns within that law itself?
Naly Pilorge: First of all, citizens including NGO workers and people in these citizen groups are already regulated. We have over 300 laws, including Civil Code and other laws. So, NGOs, citizen groups, citizens don't just operate in a vacuum. You know, NGOs receive money. They conduct programs, so they are registered already. There are already regulations. Certain citizen groups do not receive money, they just get together to discuss common issues, so they do not wish to register, which is their right under our constitution, under international convention. So the first misconception is that there are no current legislation that regulates NGOs. That's just not true. And the second is we are living in a country where leadership has been in power for over two decades and it is in their interest to restrict the growth of citizen groups and repress certain issues to be raised to the public, which is what we believe is the intention of this new legislation that has just been passed by the national assembly and it is not an NGO law. It's an association and NGO law. And our greatest concern, our issue with this law is not that NGOs should not register. That is not it. This law forces every group that serves an interest to their members to register. So, if you wish to start a football team, then, under this law, you need to register. If you want to get together to talk about LGBT, under this law, you would have to register. If you are a group of women starting a small credit’s team, you would have to register. So, that's really the most important issue we have against this law because what that does is if people don't register, if groups don't register, then they can face sanctions. So the consequence of that would be that people would not mobilize under common issues, that more and more people would be arrested for raising land grabbing, for raising prices of rice or pork or anything like that, so that's the main issue. We also have problems with the law because those NGOs that are already registered such as LICADHO could be re-registered or suspended or even prosecuted if we violate Cambodia’s dignity and morality and other very vague terms and that is decided it's unclear who makes that decision but [the] Ministry of Interior can suspend, can prosecute and so on. There's no appeal system. So, for example, if LICADHO or another organization raises land grabbing, it would be easy under this law for the prosecution or the suspension of an NGO because they would have been decided that they would [have] violated Cambodian morality or dignity.
VOA Khmer: I just had a follow up question on that. So in western democratic societies, are associations required to register and would you accept a certain degree of regulation? What is your take on that?
Naly Pilorge: Again, there are already regulations in place. We don't operate; NGOs don't operate in a vacuum. We are registered. Most NGOs are registered. You know, there is a penal code in case that we do criminal acts. So, again, there's a misconception that there's no regulation of NGO. There are regulations of NGO in place right now. In fact, the Japanese government and JICA spent over two decades drafting and training on the civil code which outlines criteria for registering and it's very much similar to other developing countries. So, if you're looking at legal protection or tax benefits, then you register, but if you are not looking into that, then you don't have to register. Most developing countries have charity laws and NGO laws but it's for a different purpose. It's for taxes. If you look at the current association and NGO law that was passed by the national assembly on Monday, there are very few benefits. There is one. The rest is all obligations and these obligations often lead to criminal sanction and the other implication of this law is that all NGOs or all groups that registered under this law will have to follow government programs and policies. So, it's no longer non-governmental organization. It will be governmental organization. There's a misunderstanding because this is a law, somehow it's legal and it's somehow good and nothing existed and NGOs did whatever they want, but just not true.
VOA Khmer: Well, there was, you know, criticism from Western donors and the opposition party also had a boycott of the session on Monday the national assembly session they walked out. In the past, you see that effective pressure is a lot from the Western donors who provide the aids to Cambodia. I understand that there is a limitation by civil group itself to sort of oppose against the law, but are you satisfied with the response from the Western donors and the opposition party? Do you think they could have done more to prevent the passing of the law on Monday?
Naly Pilorge: The law is not enacted yet. ... It is now at the senate and [the] senate must vote for this to pass this association and NGO law. After that, the constitutional council shall review the law because we believe this law is unconstitutional and then the king has to ratify it. So, what happened on Monday was just the national assembly passing it. There are still other steps to take before the law becomes.... before it's enacted, before it's implemented. And yes, I really hope that not just western but European, Japanese governments would say more, do more because this legislation is not just for NGOs. It's also to ensure accountability of a project. You know, everyone can be affected by this – international NGOs, people working under international NGOs. It's in everyone's interest, including our own government, that there are groups that continue to get together whether it's farmers, whether it's fishermen or whether it's women, that continue to grow. That brings us into the future and then ensure some checks and balances. We would really like for Western government to continue talking to our government, but also publicizing announcements about how dangerous this law is. Now the U.S. did that before the law was passed by the national assembly, but it hasn't done that afterward and we'd like to see that. Cambodians also look at what the international community is saying because maybe unlike in our countries, the international community still gives more than 50 percent contribution to our national budget, so that's taxpayers’ money. And so the international community also has a stake in this law. So, we would like to see private and public messaging about this law and not just before the national assembly, but right now, right now, because there are still steps before it's implemented.
VOA Khmer: I do want to ask you follow up on the opposition. I mean since the last election – 2013 election – the opposition has gained strength and we've seen that they’ve gained strength like how the opposition pushes the Vietnam border dispute. But I was wondering if opposition could have done more as well - now that they seem to have growing power - with regard to the NGO law?
Naly Pilorge: You know, you always hope that politicians or other groups do more even, the media, but you know, people have different interests. I mean on Monday the opposition was very clear. They boycotted it, boycotted the national assembly session, so the messaging was that they didn't want give credibility to this session, which is quite strong. Now, they couldn't stop the passage because they hold the minority number of MPs, but they boycotted the whole session. Some people said they should have voted no, but my guess is this is stronger. Now, I don't know, but this week, one of the senators from the opposition party said that if the law is held in session at the senate this week, the Sam Rainsy Party senators will also boycott it, so again, they cannot stop the passage, but it can be a clear message on record that they have not legitimized the passage of this law.
VOA Khmer: So, part of the questions I have been asking you is also to find out what Cambodians themselves can do about this. In the past, I think we’ve relied a lot of western donors to sort of pressure the government, but after the 2013 election, the political landscape has changed somewhat and I want to ask you about, since you mentioned about youth and technology, there could be up to 70% of the population that is 35 and under and we could see that they were the big changer in last election. Now, with regard to the NGO law, I've noticed that they have participated somewhat in that, but since what you mentioned, this law will most likely impact them as a generation in sort of restricting their participation, their creating of associations. So far, are you satisfied with how the younger generation has voiced their concern on the law? What do you think they can do more since the impact will likely be on their generation?
Naly Pilorge: I agree with you, but it's sad but this is going to affect youth and their participation. As we know youth all over the world are idealistic and want more than their parents and Cambodians now, you know, know that these are rights and they're not just gift to be given, but to their rights to gather, right voice their concerns and so on, but because this law was... I mean this law had been introduced much or later and it was stalled twice now but recently the Prime Minister just announced this law in April, so this was not that long go and so most Cambodians are preoccupied with lack of job employment and lots of other concerns and so there hasn’t been enough time to raise awareness throughout Cambodia that this legislation is now passed by the national assembly. There just hasn’t been time and it’s often very difficult in developing countries that still has weak infrastructure and the media is mostly dominated by the government to expose to them how this law will affect fundamental rights, so of course youth could be more hmmm...and in different ways even individual can be. But because of the environment, it is also difficult. There's been little time, there's been secrecy, there's been misinformation. So it's really difficult to this day, to this day. Here we are. The first time the prime minister announced that was in April and, here we are, it's been passed by the national assembly on Monday and the government has never released this law officially. One version was found on Facebook and that was the extent of the government openness toward this law.
VOA Khmer: I want to ask you one last question. If you have a message to especially the younger generation who could make up to 70 percent of the population, what message would it be with regard to this law? What could they do? How should they see the importance of civil society and NGOs based in Cambodia?
Naly Pilorge: This law will fundamentally affect the ability of all citizens to get together and talk about common issues. You know sometimes it's not even just about human right, sometimes you know football, yoga whatever, but this law affected everyone, including business is affected. There are many many business associations. So the message to the youth is, you know, this law will be voted by the senate very soon and then it'll go to the constitutional council and then the king. So, get on your Facebook and write to the senators and say no to passing this law. Cambodia wants to move into the future. The global economy is very difficult. We need to stay competitive and that means we need space to voice concerns. We need to be able to have ... continue having technology, we need to have continued debate, we need to have [a] free market and for that we need democratic space. We can't go back to darkness or silence. That was a part of our history, but we can't go back.
VOA Khmer: I want to thank you very much Miss Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO for talking to VOA Khmer in Washington.
Naly Pilorge: Alright. Thank you very much.