Cambodia’s new NGO law is an opportunity to “promote clarity”
The country’s Senate passed a Law on Associations and Non-Government Organisations that imposes restrictions on the activity of 5,000 NGOs. Activists fear the government will gag them during the 2018 parliamentary elections. Associations have come to play an important role in the country’s life following the end of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Today, the challenge is to monitor results and plans.

 

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – A Catholic expert on NGOs spoke to AsiaNews anonymously for security reasons about a law passed last week by the Cambodian Senate, the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organisations (LANGO).

For the source, there is nothing wrong with Cambodian authorities monitoring NGOs. “However, we must be careful, and fully understand the new law’s implications.” When it comes to their accounts, or “money coming from abroad, regulations are necessary.” In fact, “No one can prove that no NGO is not involved in illegal activities. The issue is not about different views, a government-opposition juxtaposition, but it is about NGOs having an opportunity to promote clarity.”

Members of some 500 associations demonstrated in front of the Cambodian Senate to protest against the new legislation. For many of them, the new legislation is vague, and will force some 5,000 foreign and Cambodian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to register and submit a report about their activities and funding. For the source, monitoring is necessary.

“Although funds can be earmarked for socially constructive purposes, this has to be proven. There is no way of knowing whether they ought to be spent right away or legitimately set aside. For the past 20 years, a legislative vacuum has existed in this field. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. Being an NGO does not mean that its members are honest. Who can say it?”

Under the new law, any NGO could lose its right to operate if it is accused of “threatening public peace, stability and security”.

One of the country’s main NGOs, the Cambodia League for the promotion and defence of human rights, better known under its French acronym LICADHO (Ligue cambodgienne de defense des droits de l’homme), slammed the new law because it would force NGOs to be politically neutral. “This means gagging legitimate dissent, which is essential for the health of a democracy.”

“I agree with LICADHO,” said the source. “I think that this restriction reflects government fears. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2018, and the new law is an attempt to limit political protests during the elections.”

Over the years, various organisations have played a crucial role in the country’s rebirth and development. Some have worked with people maimed by landmines to rehabilitate a population traumatised by the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot.

"We trained future Cambodian teachers, set up kindergartens, and rehabilitated some areas to build communities through hygiene education, nursing, help for pregnant women and new born. We have created leisure centres for the disabled where families can bring their children,” the source explained.

Putting aside the limits on NGOs’ involvement in politics, “I believe that that one should not aprioristically reject regulations. If one’s activities are legitimate, for the good of people, one should not be worried. As far as I know, the government has never objected to any plan that really benefitted the country.

"An association earns its legitimacy on the ground, through the plans it promotes, and the results it obtains. Thus, we should stay away from any government-opposition juxtaposition. NGOs must see the legislation’s proactive impulse and not fear what it might do.”

Lastly, “I welcome this law if it provides for objective checks. They [NGOs] should take some risk, and not be afraid to report on any project. They should envisage the country without them. If they left, what would be their legacy? Would anyone see the fruit of their labour? For me that is the greatest challenge.”

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