PHNOM PENH —
A ruling party lawmaker says pro-democracy and rights groups staging protests against a draft law at the National Assembly are trying to “topple the government.”
Civil society groups have rallied against a draft law to regulate NGOs that they fear will lead to strict government control over their activities and a crackdown on dissent.
The draft is currently being reviewed by National Assembly committees before it goes to the floor for debate—despite repeated calls from NGOs and the international community to either improve the law or drop it altogether.
On Wednesday, Chheang Vun, a lawmaker for the Cambodian People’s Party, said three days of protests over the draft are the result of too much foreign money pouring into organizations, which are now trying to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“We’ve already seen this in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, and Cambodia in the 1970s, and in Indonesia, where people expelled Suharto, and [the Philippines], where people expelled Marcos, and so on,” he said.
He accused many NGOs of implementing foreign policies from the countries that fund them. The draft law is a challenge to these NGOs, he said.
His statements came after an intense argument Chheang Vun had outside the Assembly with Um Sam An, a lawmaker for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, who tried speaking with reporters about the draft.
Chheang Vun, who is the head of the Assembly’s information committee, said he was the one with the “right to speak” to reporters.
“I am a lawmaker,” Um Sam An responded. “I have the right to speak, too.”
“You have the right to speak somewhere else,” Chheang Vun said. “But you can’t speak at parliament.”
The exchange underscores the frustration many feel with the current draft law on NGOs and its process, which has taken place behind closed doors and with little public comment or review. Many NGOs fear that the law will be used to further curtail their freedoms and will mire them in red tape if they fall on the wrong side of powerful officials.
NGO representatives will have a chance to make statements to the Assembly regarding the law next week, but it is unclear whether they’ll be able to change the substance of the law.
Meanwhile, Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, dismissed Chheang Vun’s allegations. “I can’t comprehend that these people and civil society groups would be capable of toppling the government,” he said, “because what power and authority do they have?”