Cambodia passes law regulating NGOs

A Cambodian protester shouting slogans in front of a police line near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Monday. More than 700 people protested outside the National Assembly as members of the ruling party passed the law.
A Cambodian protester shouting slogans in front of a police line near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Monday. More than 700 people protested outside the National Assembly as members of the ruling party passed the law.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

New curbs seen as an attempt by Hun Sen to bring civil society to heel

Aid and charity organisations in Cambodia now face tough regulations and potential funding cuts under a controversial new law pushed through the legislature by the ruling party.

Ignoring loud protests from civil society groups and others, Cambodia's National Assembly on Monday passed the law, which lays down new, rigorous reporting requirements for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and unions.

The law is widely seen as an attempt to curb free speech. But the government insists increased scrutiny of NGOs is necessary.

Among the clauses in the law are also conditions open to arbitrary interpretations, which critics say are too broad and could easily be abused by government officials. 

More than 700 people, including farmers, monks, land-rights activists, unionists, tuk-tuk drivers, students and NGO staff protested outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh as members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party unanimously passed the law. The opposition Cambodian National People's Party boycotted the vote.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in April that the law would prevent funds from terrorist groups from entering the country.

But civil society groups say it is an attempt by Mr Hun Sen to bring to heel NGOs and trade unions that are critical of him. "NGOs have been empowering people to mobilise against (the government's) dictatorial leadership style," housing rights activist Phearum Sia told The Straits Times. 

Last Thursday, the European Parliament in a resolution said the law would "impose unwarranted restrictions on the rights to freedom of association and expression, and create legal grounds for arbitrarily closing or denying registration to politically disfavoured NGOs". Cambodia receives US$600 million (S$814 million) to US$700 million in foreign aid annually, which could be at risk, it said.

On Monday, Cambodian NGO Licadho said the law "will give the government sweeping powers to restrict civil society".

And in a statement, the Hong Kong-based Civil Rights Defenders said: "The NGO law provides unchecked powers to government agencies to selectively target civil society groups that it deems unpalatable."

But Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Monday insisted that the government had delayed the draft law in response to concerns for 20 years, and that it was time to pass it. "I clarify that this... law does not have the purpose of restricting NGOs," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Cambodia passes law regulating NGOs'. Print Edition | Subscribe