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Draft Law To Regulate NGOs Passes Council Meeting

Am Sam Ath, monitor supervisor for the human rights organizaiton LICADHO speaks to journalists during a press conference on the “stop and consult” campaign.

A controversial draft law to regulate Cambodia’s NGOs has passed a major hurdle and will be moved on to the National Assembly for legislative debate.

In a closed-door session Friday, the Council of Ministers approved the draft law, one that pro-democracy and rights groups fear will be used to curb dissent and criticism.

Om Chandara, a spokesman for the council, told VOA Khmer that two articles were withdrawn at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the meeting to reduce bureaucratic complications for NGOs.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said one of the articles would have required NGOs to limit administrative spending to 25 percent of their budgets. Another would have required foreign NGOs to register with both the Council for the Development of Cambodia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The new draft has them register only with the ministry, he said.

Hun Sen “thought it was their independent duty to set their expenditures,” he said. “Therefore the article was taken out. Another one was taken out to end complications it would have caused to NGOs.”

Announcements of what were taken out of the law come even though the draft has not been made public, and many rights workers say they are concerned by what may still be in it.

Phay Siphan said they “should not worry so much.” The draft law does not, for example, require them to send financial reports to the Ministry of Interior, only a copy of reports they send to their donors, he said.

Such assurances have done little to allay fears among NGOs, however.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the law is a clear attempt to “control NGOs,” despite calls from the international community to either scrap the law or have it publicly debated.

“Even though there was the removal of the articles, there is more to be worried about related to the draft law, particularly with the registration of local associations, which are working in the local communities,” he said.

US Ambassador William Todd wrote in his personal blog on Friday that he remains concerned about the future of Cambodian development if the draft is made law. As debate on the law proceeds, “the world is watching,” he wrote. “The United States will continue to follow the developments on the draft NGO law closely, because we believe any change in the law that restricts rather than empowers civil society does not serve the best interests of the Cambodian people.”