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Why Do Activists and the European Parliament Oppose Cambodia’s NGO Law?

Monks joined the protest caravan against the passage of the NGO law. Photo from Licadho

Monks joined the protest caravan against the passage of the NGO law. Photo from Licadho

Cambodia’s government has proposed the passage of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) to prevent the rise of what it labels terrorist groups and to stop money laundering. Activists have rejected it for containing provisions that violate the citizens’ constitutional rights.

It was first proposed in 2011 but the ruling party withdrew it after encountering public backlash. LANGO was revived this year and was unanimously passed by the National Assembly on July 13. The Senate will soon tackle the measure.

The parliament debate was boycotted by all members of the opposition who accused the administration coalition of failing to properly inform the public about the details surrounding the law.

At Wat Ounalum in Phnom Penh, 500 monks, farmers, land rights activists, unionists, tuk-tuk drivers, youth, students, and NGO staff gathered to express their rejection of LANGO.

Human rights activists insisted that the name LANGO is inaccurate since the coverage of the law includes all groups, associations, and community formations. That is why they are aghast over LANGO’s provision on mandatory registration because it will criminalize the activities of local groups that fail to register with the bureaucracy.

Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, concurs with this analysis:

Any group of people coming together to pursue a common cause, be it a human rights issue or cleaning up their neighbourhood, is an association. And under this draft, every single one of them will be a criminal organization if they do not register.

Workers who joined the protest described LANGO as a law that will curtail the people's right to organize. Photo from Facebook page of Maina Kiai

Workers who joined the protest described LANGO as a law that will curtail the people's right to organize. Photo from Facebook page of Maina Kiai

Aside from the specific provision on mandatory registration, below are some of the aspects of the law that are being opposed by various activist groups:

-Registered local associations must commit to be politically neutral or else they will face penalties and lose government accreditation;

-Article 8 empowers authorities to deny the application of a group that engages in activities that “jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society.” This is a vague and broad statement that could include all dissenting activities of critical NGOs.

-Article 9 expands the ban on all unregistered domestic NGOs and associations;

-Article 12 requires local NGOs with short term international projects to seek approval first from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. At present, NGOs are only ordered to notify the Ministry about their activities with international partners;

-Article 30 gives discretionary powers to the government minister to remove the registration of domestic NGOs for activities listed under Article 8 mentioned above.

Police set up a barricade that prevented protesters from reaching the National Assembly. Photo from Licadho

Police set up a barricade that prevented protesters from reaching the National Assembly. Photo from Licadho

Licadho, a local human rights group, asserted that “the real purpose of this law is to exercise control over groups of citizens who want to speak out.”

Civil society is absolutely vital for democracy and legitimizes the democratic institutions we rely on. If LANGO passes, this will be wiped out in an instant, replaced by a bleak environment of unchallenged governance and its myriad consequences.

In recent months, several international organizations have expressed their concern about the introduction of LANGO in the National Assembly. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders described LANGO as “a serious attack on Cambodia’s vibrant and young civil society.” Transparency International echoed this critique as it urged the government to review the draft of the bill:

The proposed law is pernicious. It could be used to effectively stop the ability of NGOs to freely criticize government policies or public officials.

The European Parliament also voiced its apprehension over the contested provisions of LANGO. It warned that Cambodia may lose 600 to 700 million US dollars in development projects annually once the law is passed. It could be alluding to the additional financial regulations that will be imposed by LANGO on international NGOs. The EU is Cambodia’s largest partner in terms of development assistance.

In response, Interior Minister Sar Kheng reiterated that Cambodia is adhering to international standards in passing the LANGO.

I cannot understand why some other foreign countries are also against this law. We have prepared this law based on their laws. Why can they have [such a law] and Cambodia cannot?

Meanwhile, lawmaker Hun Many, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, is confident that LANGO “will help increase cooperation with the government.”

It appears that the NGO law, which was originally conceived as a reform measure, is part of the ruling party’s strategy to consolidate power after losing a significant number of seats in the 2013 elections. The incumbent prime minister is Southeast Asia’s longest serving head of state who recently initiated dialogue with the opposition bloc.

Whether this will weaken the influence of opposition politicians, the passage of the NGO law is expected to embolden other political forces in Cambodia to step up efforts to block the bill in the Senate. If protests gather momentum in the nation’s capital, will the government ban rallies again like what it did in 2014?

In the meantime, protests are becoming more creative as activists employ various forms of actions to inform the public about the dangers of LANGO. Below is a video protest which was widely shared on social media:

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