A draft law to tighten control over Cambodia’s many non-governmental organizations is nearly completed and will soon be at the Council of Ministers for final approval before moving on to the National Assembly.
Rights groups and other watchdogs are increasingly worried over the motives behind the law, which they say will erode freedoms. But government officials say the law is needed, to watch the watchers.
In a statement issued earlier this month, the Asian Human Rights Commission warned that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party could be using its landslide victory in elections last year—where it won 90 of 123 National Assembly seats—to pass laws that favor the party and ignore constitutional freedoms.
“If the government adopted this law, it could strongly control and reduce political, social and economic rights,” Rights Commission researcher Lao Monghay told VOA Khmer in a phone interview last week.
Government officials say the law has been drafted with the constitution and UN charters in mind.
Om Yentieng, who heads the government’s rights committee and is an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the Rights Commission was making recommendations from “blindness,” having not seen the draft.
“Now we don’t know how to please those people,” he said.
Local rights groups also worry the new law could mean a crackdown. They say other laws need more attention.
“The Cambodian government should focus its efforts on establishing the necessary corruption law and bettering the penal code,” Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Licadho, said.
An anti-corruption law, despite urgent encouragement by donors, has remained in a draft stage for years. Om Yentieng said the government is taking all laws in stride, but the high number of non-governmental organizations in the country need regulation.
However, the fear is that the intent of the law is not to regulate, but to pressure rights organizations and others, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told VOA Khmer in a phone interview.
“I think the purpose of Hun Sen is to have an NGO law that allows the government to control their activities and to ensure that they don’t criticize the government, and that kind of law should not be passed,” Adams said.
As a developing country, Cambodia remains heavily reliant on non-governmental agencies, which provide anything from health care to agricultural development, food aid, and rights monitoring.
Ho Van, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said rural Cambodians especially rely on these organizations.
“The duties of NGOs are to push the government to take action and bring justice for the people,” he said. “If those NGOs work under restrictions and pressure by the government, then the innocent Khmer people and victims won’t have a way to complain for solutions at all.”
Without the rights protection afforded by NGOs, Cambodia’s democratic standing could slide quickly, Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party, said in an interview.
Prior to its sweeping win in elections last year, the CPP-led government delayed democracy “little by little,” he said, “but now it has a strong enough voice to start reducing democracy. It is reducing the democratic process now.”
Kem Sokha was the head of the non-governmental Cambodian Center for Human Rights before he went on to found his party ahead of last year’s election, where his candidates won three seats in parliament.
A main worry in the Law on Organizations is a requirement for groups to report their activities and financial expenditures to the government. This was not necessary, as such groups report to their donors, which is enough, he said.
However, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, the ministry responsible for up to 80 percent of the draft, said the law is necessary to monitor the financial activities of NGOs that are currently “riding a horse with free hands.”
The law will require re-registration for all NGOs with the Ministry of Interior, the spokesman, Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, said.
“This is a big thing for them,” he said. “What they have, where they’ve received financing from, where are their resources, how many millions do they spend in a year, what have they spent it on, doing politics or whatever: these all need to be transparent.”
The part of the law addressing political activities is of concern, because many roles of organizations, if broadly defined, can be considered political, said Rafael Dochao Moreno, the European Commission’s representative in Cambodia.
“Government officials and NGO representatives, they have to sit together…to see whether or not…proposals of civil society organizations could be incorporated into the text of the law,” he said.
Organizations like the Cambodian Center for Human Rigths, Licadho, and others often criticize the government directly, focusing on government policy, law enforcement, or the courts, which are widely held as politically biased.
With government restrictions written in a new law, these groups won’t be able to do their work at all, said Ou Vireak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“I think that they have made a law that is not parallel to the democratic process,” he said.