BANGKOK (AlertNet) – A Cambodian government spokesperson has defended a controversial law aiming to regulate non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and has slammed critics who have urged foreign donors to consider a funding-freeze if the law passes in its current form, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
A coalition of 10 NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Global Witness and Freedom House has angered Cambodia - which relies on foreign aid to cover as much as 60 percent of its spending - by writing to 36 foreign ministers of major donor countries and the European Union last week.
The letters urged donors to press the Southeast Asian country to not pass the law, and to reassess assistance if it is passed. The law, in its third draft, is currently before the Cambodian Council of Ministers for consideration.
“What else do they want? We just want to have a proper law to regulate their operations to follow the rule of law in the country where they are operating,” Ek Tha, a spokesman and deputy director of the press unit at the Council of Ministers, told The Post by e-mail.
He also criticised the international community for not helping the country during the bloody Khmer Rouge years:
“I wish we had foreign NGOs and human rights activists voice their concerns in the 1970s when we were being treated badly under the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said.
Among concerns raised over the current draft, the UK’s Guardian newspaper has pointed to the law’s mandatory and complex NGO registration, a lack of safeguards to ensure objectivity in registration denials or involuntary dissolutions, the absence of a period for an appeal process when registration is denied, and many sections in the law being vague.
The letter said that, in its current form, the NGO law “will allow the Royal Government of Cambodia to intimidate and potentially shut down local, national and foreign NGOs, associations, and informal groups that criticise the government or government officials.”
“As written, the current draft law empowers the government to violate fundamental rights and does little to protect state or social interests,” it said.
The organisations said such a “grave threat should elicit a serious response from Cambodia’s development partners, who have poured billions of dollars into efforts to support just and sustainable development in Cambodia.”
The letters came at a time of rising tensions between NGOs and Cambodia’s government.
In recent weeks, the Foreign Ministry warned an umbrella organisation of 88 NGOs over a letter it wrote to two donors about the impact of a railway refurbishment project on people who were resettled, suspended an NGO that signed the letter for allegedly inciting villagers to protest against the railway project and summoned another to meet with officials.
Last week it also postponed indefinitely a top-level meeting with foreign donors. This followed an announcement that the World Bank has halted loans to the government over its failure to curb forced evictions.
REGULATION OR REVENGE?
Supporters of the draft law say, in a country of only 15 million people, it would help regulate a sector accommodating more than 3,000 NGOs and associations – according to some estimates – that work on issues ranging from health, education and infrastructure to environmental protection and governance.
The large number of NGOs in Cambodia has raised questions about their own levels of transparency and accountability as well as the hefty salaries earned by expatriate staff in the impoverished country.
Critics have said the law is an attempt to muzzle a burgeoning civil society that has become openly critical of Hun Sen – who has been prime minister for the past 25 years – and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The NGOs behind the latest letter also said a new Civil Code, which will take effect in November this year, already has provisions on the registration and operation of non-profit entities in Cambodia.
The international community pledged $1.1 billion in aid for Cambodia last year, an increase from the previous year's commitment of $990 million.
That figure is dwarfed by investment pledges by Chinese firms, which agreed to spend $8 billion in 360 projects in Cambodia in the first seven months of this year.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)