A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Resentment over NGO law spreads

Thursday, 31 March 2011
Thomas Miller and Vong Sokheng
Phnom Penh Post

Organisation representing hundreds of NGOs and associations yesterday came out strongly against the second draft of the government’s controversial NGO law, some threatening political fallout, while the government defended the law.

Three umbrella groups, which have represented hundreds of organisations in closed-door negotiations with the government in recent weeks, said they saw “no progress” in the second draft.

“The [majority] of the changes are minor and fail to address the fundamental concerns raised by [civil society organisations],” Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said in a statement released by the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, NGO Forum and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee.

“The most significant problem remains at the heart of the law: Registration is still mandatory,” the groups said.

Several networks representing dozens of community groups and associations also denounced the law yesterday, saying at a press conference in Phnom Penh that they had been deceived by the government.

“The latest draft is more restrictive for civil society organisations, which is contrary to the response that the Ministry of Interior gave to us by telephone, that they had accepted the majority of our proposed points,” the groups said in a statement.

“The latest draft law is a law to control civil society rather than to promote the rights of citizens in creating and forming organisations and associations.”

Several of the networks said there would be political fallout if the law was not changed significantly.

“We will not vote for the government if the ruling party does not respect our will. We have more than 1,000 local associations.... Therefore, the effective judgment over the Government’s policy is through the upcoming elections,” Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said yesterday.

Um Mech, a representative of ethnic minority groups in Kampong Thom province, said lawmakers would be held accountable for their votes on the law.

“We are the voters. If the law is adopted without protecting our benefits and our rights, we will not vote for the government,” he said. “We voted for our representatives in the National Assembly because we need them to protect us, and now if they will approve the law without thinking about our interests ... This is the way of democracy.”

Um Mech said high rates of illiteracy among indigenous people would make the law’s registration and reporting requirements “a huge obstacle” to his organisation’s work. He also expressed concern about his ability to take on politically sensitive issues.

“Before this law, at least 30 people have been imprisoned for claiming their own land. If the law is adopted, there will be more people imprisoned,” he said.

The draft legislation has been roundly criticised for setting out vague and arbitrary government authority, mandatory registration and reporting requirements deemed burdensome for small organisations.
The second draft also contains no explicit right to appeal government decisions, either to the courts or ministries.

The newest draft created a registration exception for “mass organisations”, also translated as “community-based organisations”, but did not define the term.

Nouth Sa An, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, defended the law.

“The allegation that we have not changed the draft is unacceptable. We have adopted about 90 percent of the changes requested by civil society,” he said yesterday.

Nouth Sa An said he did not know when the law would be submitted to the Council of Ministers, though he reportedly told NGO representatives in a meeting on Tuesday the deadline was the end of the week.
“We are waiting to see an approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the requests to change the draft law,” he said

Ouch Borith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, could not be reached for comment yesterday, and spokesman Koy Kuong said he did not know about the matter.

In an analysis of the law released yesterday, local rights group Licadho said the new draft contained the same flaws as the first and would “further disempower Cambodian communities”.

“It must be remembered that the freedoms of association, expression and assembly in Cambodia are already heavily restricted, particularly at the community level,” the report said.

“Anyone who is perceived to be challenging local or government officials is open to persecution, including arrest, detention, threats and violence. The draft law must be assessed within this context,” Licadho said.

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