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New Law Could Foster ‘Tightlipped’ NGOs: Rights Activist

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project.

A new draft law to regulate NGOs will have an adverse affect on government criticism, a leading rights activist said Monday.

The NGO law, which was approved by the Council of Ministers this month to wide rebuke among rights and development workers, contains provisions that critics say make organizations vulnerable to government attack.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, told “Hello VOA” Monday that the law will also have a silencing affect on some NGOs that are traditionally critical of government policies or abuse.

While some government officials are not overly sensitive to such criticism, “low-level, malicious officials” see it as an attack on their political party, he said. With a law behind them, these officials could make problems for organizations, he said.

So even if the law is not used to directly attack NGOs, workers will be “tightlipped,” he said. “And we have to ask, is this a gain or a loss for the people?”

“If we don’t dare to criticize them, then [some] officials will take advantage, and will do acts without responsibility,” he said. If an organization cannot operate without getting permission from the government, he added, “then I understand that this is not freedom; there is no freedom.”

The law, which must now be approved by parliament, contains provisions that can slow development work, such as excessive registration and reporting requirements, he said.

NGOs are funded with donors who have benchmarks, so there is no need to worry about their operations, he said, and there are already enough laws on the books to close NGOs that are operating illegally.

The law has received widespread criticism from international and local communities, including calls for donors to review their assistance to Cambodia if it passes.

A spokesman for the Council of Ministers said that other countries have regulations for organizations, so this law will not likely affect foreign assistance.