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Protesters Outside National Assembly Demand End to NGO Law

Cambodian human rights and land activists holding banner that reads "Say NO! Union, Association & NGO Laws" during a protest in front of the National Assembly, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)

Pro-democracy and rights groups in Cambodia have launched a three-day demonstration in an attempt to stop the passage of a law to regulate NGOs.

The law, which critics fear will be used as a tool to severely curtail government criticism, is now at the National Assembly, awaiting debate.

Some 200 people rallied in front of the Assembly on Sunday, demanding the law be dismissed and singing a song: “We don’t need this law.”

Cambodia has some 4,000 NGOs, many of which perform services the government is unable to perform. The law, which has not been made public, could create a lot of red tape for many of them, and could be used to close NGOs that displease powerful officials.

Standing outside the National Assembly Sunday, Thun Saray, head of the rights group Adhoc, told reporters the law will end up restricting the activities of NGOs. He encouraged Cambodian voters to consider not electing those who would support such a law.

“Should we, the owners of power and the owners of votes, stay silent, when the ruling party or another party passes a law aiming to tie up the hands and feet of NGOs, who help the general citizens?” he asked.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the bill runs counter to the country’s constitution. Along with another bill, to regulate unions, it represents “political motives” that would “suppress the rights and freedoms of the people,” he said.

The law is currently under review by Assembly committees, before it is debated by the full legislature. Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have said they share concerns about the law. However, the Cambodia National Rescue Party holds only 55 of 123 seats, not enough to scuttle it.

Some 300 organizations have taken up a campaign to have it stopped. Chheang Vun, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the Assembly will move forward with debate, despite the protests. “A handful of organizations can’t stop the work of 123 representatives of the people,” he said.

The protest is expected to continue Tuesday. Organizers said that if they are not satisfied with the Assembly’s actions, they will march through the streets, calling for the cancelation of both the NGO law and the law to regulate unions.