With the approval last week of a draft NGO law by Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, many pro-democracy and rights advocates say they should now have a chance to add their comments on the bill, before it goes to the National Assembly for debate.
The NGO law seeks to regulate the thousands of organizations in the country, but critics fear it will become a tool to silence government criticism.
Tek Vannara, head of the NGO Forum, told “Hello VOA” on Monday that a functioning civil society will be more and more important, as Cambodia competes with other countries in the region. If the law hurts that sector, it will result in the loss of funding—and therefore services—from the international community, he said.
“When we create obstacles and prevent more, it becomes a financial competition, because Myanmar is newly opened up, and in Africa there are many problems,” he said. Donors may be more likely to focus their attention on those places. “Our country or its people lose services from the national and international NGOs,” he said.
A fair, transparent law, on the other hand, would allow NGOs to better operate in the country and strengthen their cooperation with the government, he said.
The draft was approved on Friday by the Council of Ministers, despite calls from NGOs and the international community for more input from civil society. Many fear the law will create red tape to prevent NGOs from doing their work and could be used as a tool to stymie work that government officials don’t approve of.
Tek Vannara said Monday the National Assembly should now open broad discussion on the law, allowing members of the public to share their views, concerns and suggestions.
Cambodia has some 4,000 NGOs, but Tek Vannara said about 1,300 do most of the work, worth up to $700 million a year. That money funds programs in poverty reduction, health, education, gender equality environmental protection, and conservation, among others.
Cambodia already has enough laws to regulate these organizations, he said, making the law unnecessary. “We suggest that there should be transparency and accountability in making the law,” he said. The law should also make it easier for NGOs to provide services, not harder, he said.
“Generally, we have a role in filling the gaps in government,” he said. “We provide a lot of services.”