PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – More than 100 representatives of NGOs protested yesterday in front of the National Assembly against a draft law they say is intended to silence them, as the legislation moved one more step towards becoming law.
While the protest was underway the controversial draft law on associations and NGOs was considered by the Assembly’s permanent committee – which sets the schedule for debating legislation. It sent the draft to three commissions for further discussion, according to committee member Yem Ponhearith.
Mr. Ponhearith, who is also the spokesman for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said it was unclear when the draft would be debated by the Assembly because the permanent committee had to wait for responses from the three commissions before it could proceed.
The legislation has been lambasted by civil society, UN agencies and diplomats who say it was drafted in secret and gives the government too much power to regulate – and even shut down – NGOs and associations. The government, however, says it is a necessary tool for monitoring funding of NGOs as well as their work.
As the legislation moves closer to being enacted the debate over it is becoming increasingly extreme.
Sok Ey San, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said NGOs that have been encouraging the government to follow the rule of law should not resist one that applies to them. He also said that because there are about 5,000 associations and NGOs in the country legislation is necessary to regulate them.
Mr. Ey San went so far as to compare NGOs opposed to the legislation to the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. These guerilla groups remained a threat along the border with Thailand up until the late 1990s, leaving large swaths of the country’s northwest outside the government’s control.
“Why are some NGOs not supporting this?” he said. “Do they want to stay outside the law like the Khmer Rouge in the late 1990s?”
“The permanent committee [of the Assembly] has discussed the draft in great detail,” he told Khmer Times yesterday morning at about noon, just hours after it received the draft.
Divided Along Party Lines
Mr. Ey San said the committee – which comprises six members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and seven members of the CPP – was divided along party lines. It passed the committee with nine votes, he said. Two members of the CNRP were absent and their places were filled by CPP lawmakers, he said.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith stressed that his party remains opposed the draft. He said that party president Sam Rainsy would personally discuss the legislation with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Moreover, CNRP members on the three commissions the draft was sent to for comment will object to it.
Representatives of associations and NGOs at yesterday’s protest stressed that the draft law was both unnecessary, authoritarian and a violation of rights.
Am Sam Ath, a coordinator at rights group Licadho, was among those calling for the law to be scrapped. It will rob associations and NGOs of their autonomy, he said.
“If the law is passed it will give the government the power to control NGOs like they are its own ministries and agencies,” he said.
Tool for Development
Developing countries like Cambodia need civil society for development as well as to ensure transparency and justice, Mr. Sam Ath said.
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association shouted a threat to politicians. “We will not vote for any political party that raises its hand to approve the [draft law],” he said to cheers of support from the 100 or so members of civil society in attendance.