Cambodian parliament passes controversial NGO law

Cambodian protesters face off with police as they shout slogans during a protest near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on July 13, 2015.
Cambodian protesters face off with police as they shout slogans during a protest near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on July 13, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia's parliament Monday passed a controversial law regulating non-governmental organisations (NGOs), despite a boycott by opposition lawmakers and street protests by activists who say it will hinder their ability to operate.

Cambodia is home to some 5,000 NGOs, many of whom provide key services in the impoverished country.

The new legislation says that all domestic and international NGOs must report their activities and finances to the government. Failure to comply could result in fines, legal action, bans and "other criminal punishment".

NGOs can also be disbanded if their activities "jeopardise peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of Cambodian society".

"Nothing is perfect. People have the right to criticise," Interior Minister Sar Kheng said, adding that the legislation had been 20 years in the making and would offer 'light touch' regulation for the country's thousands of NGOs.

All 55 opposition parliamentarians boycotted the vote on the legislation, known as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), but the bill was passed with unanimous support from lawmakers from Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party.

"Don't worry - this law will not affect or restrict the rights and freedoms of civil society groups," Sar Kheng told lawmakers during the parliamentary debate.

Police sealed off the streets outside the parliament as several hundred activists protested the law, which the opposition claimed had been rushed through parliament.

The legislation will be used to "pressure and restrict" individuals and organisations and narrows the democratic space in the country, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said in a statement.

Rights groups, United Nations officials and Western diplomats have also voiced strong concern over the legislation.

"Today is a very sad day for civil society in Cambodia," Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told AFP.

She said there had been "a stubborn refusal of this government to listen to Cambodian people and to the international community".

Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-ruling leaders, marked three decades in power in January. He is regularly criticised by campaigners for stamping out dissent.