Cambodia's controversial NGO law snares its first victim

A constituency dialogue in Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia, organized by the National Democratic Institute. Photo by: NDI - Cambodia

PHNOM PENH — Since it was passed two years, Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, or LANGO, has posed a quietly looming threat. Long before LANGO became a law, civil society groups warned that the legislation was designed to shut down those that fell afoul of the government. It was just a question of when.

The first casualty came on August 23 when the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute was given seven days to shut down and send its foreign staff packing. According to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the group had broken rules requiring political neutrality by working with the opposition to topple the ruling party. The announcement came just weeks after Hun Sen warned international NGOs that they were now under threat, thanks to a separate law. “So please, foreign agencies and groups who eat foreign funds — please retreat. We are watching you. Your NGOs could be dissolved via the party law,” the premier said in a speech at his Phnom Penh office building, according to a report in The Cambodia Daily.

NDI insists that it is nonpartisan and offers the same support to all parties as part of programs to improve democracy around the world. But Hun Sen is among a growing list of authoritarian leaders who view NGOs with immense suspicion, leading to a what rights groups say is a shrinking space for civil society around the world.

In Cambodia, Hun Sen and his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, have sent a clear message that human rights and democracy NGOs are in the firing line as they seek to silence critical voices ahead of the national election, to be held in July 2018. Rights groups say they won’t be intimidated. But with the government empowered by a rising China and equipped with new legal tools to silence dissent, NGOs are recalibrating for what are certain to be tumultuous times ahead.

While the NDI closure is the government’s boldest move yet, the CPP has fired warning shots at various NGOs through threats of LANGO violation. In recent months, the government has gone after a coalition of local independent election monitors, accusing the well-respected groups of conspiring to foment a popular uprising — thus violating the NGO law. The spokesman for the Interior Ministry admitted after local elections in June that he had made a vague legal threat against NGOs simply to scare them in the leadup to voting day.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or LICADHO, one of the oldest and biggest human rights groups in the country, has been warned that it’s violating the NGO law at least three times, once for a website it created to keep track of the number of political prisoners in the country. Naly Pilorge, the longtime director of the group, said her staff had no clue how the government was deciding which activities were illegal.

“How is that not legitimate human rights work?” Pilorge, who is now LICADHO’s deputy director of advocacy, said last month of the political prisoners website and a report from the organization on debt bondage and child labor at brick factories, which drew similar scorn from the government.

But LANGO is just one tool wielded by the government. Five current and former officials from ADHOC — the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, another of the country’s most prominent rights groups — served 427 days in prison on politically tinged bribery charges before being released on bail in mid-June.

In everything from human rights to health care to landmine clearance, the government has been very slow to step in.

This past year has also seen the daylight murder of a prominent political analyst; the jailing of at least half dozen Facebook users for threatening or defamatory posts; the secretive drafting and speedy adoption of draconian laws; and imminent threats to close down independent media outlets. Last week, the country’s longest running English-language daily was told to pay a $6.3 million tax bill by early September or be shuttered. Almost simultaneously, 15 local radio stations were shuttered — a major blow in a nation where radio serves as the only source of independent news for much of the rural populace.

“How do we handle it? Well, we are very busy,” Pilorge said during an interview at LICADHO’s headquarters in Phnom Penh. The group was spending more time planning for the worst; talking about security, privacy and overall professionalism, she said. “It’s not all bad. We should have done that 20 years ago, but now the environment is forcing us to do that.”

A long road

Cambodia’s landmark 1991 peace deal, signed by 19 different countries including the U.S. and China, marked a high point for international cooperation as the Cold War was coming to a close. As the nation struggled to rebuild from the devastation left by the Khmer Rouge and subsequent civil war, the U.N. moved in, running an 18-month long transitional government at the staggering cost of $1.5 billion. The U.N.’s outsized role in organizing elections and laying the foundation for a democracy, along with global sympathy for Cambodia’s suffering in the previous decades and a destitute government, gave rise to a network of NGOs and international groups that provided a broad range of basic services and education programs.

Two-and-a-half decades later, Cambodia’s economic growth has been such that it is now classed a lower-middle income country by the World Bank. That moniker is a symbol of success, but also a sign that the country should be ready to wean itself off foreign support. But in everything from human rights to health care to landmine clearance, the government has been very slow to step in.

Donors and NGOs have provided crucial services to people, but many have come to believe that the constant influx of support and cash (the government receives upwards of $1 billion a year from donor nations) has also allowed the ruling party less culpability to its electorate, allowing it to consolidate power. “If there had been no international involvement, would we be in a better place right now, in terms of human rights? In terms of having a responsive government? I don’t know,” said LICADHO’s Pilorge.

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Compounding matters at the moment is an underlying geopolitical shift toward China that has freed Cambodia’s government from its reliance on western support — which has often been conditional on a certain level of cooperation on human rights and democracy. That, in turn, has allowed the ruling party a safety net of sorts; should traditional donor dollars be withheld, the government can still access the money needed to maintain a level of stability.

“Democratic states should not forget that for every dollar or euro they withdraw, China stands ready to fill the vacuum with huge amounts of no-strings-attached aid and investment,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “The Cambodian authorities already seem emboldened by the vast amounts of cash flowing in from Beijing, and more willing to ignore or confront diplomatically phrased criticism from democratic states.”

Many have disputed the notion of “no-strings-attached” Chinese aid, arguing that the strings are simply harder to see. In exchange for Beijing’s financial support, critics say Phnom Penh has served as China’s proxy in disputes with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and given preference to Chinese companies in bidding for major infrastructure projects.

But as the ruling party faces the greatest test to its power in two decades in next year’s election, the CPP may well decide that the traditional aid community is no longer needed. If it’s a choice between legitimacy versus keeping power, few doubt that Hun Sen and his deputies will be willing to take the hit to their international credibility.

A new normal

While almost every election since 1993 has seen the human rights situation deteriorate to some extent, the sheer volume of “human rights” cases this year is stretching the human and financial resources of NGOs. A certain level of triage has become inevitable, said CCHR’s Sopheap.

“Even for NGOs that have not directly faced security or legal threats, navigating this new environment itself acts as a drain on resources, diverting staff time into risk assessments and security measures, at the expense of other activities,” she said in an email.

With a shift in geopolitics and a change in government tactics, some are asking whether a new approach is needed.

At CCHR and other rights groups, phones are often left outside the room when people talk about sensitive issues, staff members communicate almost exclusively using encrypted smartphone apps, and many Cambodians working in the sector say they are coping with threats of violence and the belief they are being watched wherever they go.

With a shift in geopolitics and a change in government tactics, some are asking whether a new approach is needed.

Ou Virak, who was the director of CCHR for almost a decade before starting the Future Forum think tank in 2015, said that human rights groups had been very effective over the years as advocates for causes such as land rights and the environment. But because of their prominence and size, this sometimes discouraged a more organic form of activism from taking root.

“The NGOs have been occupying the megaphone for so long, how can anyone else grab it?” he said. “All NGOs are behaving like activists. Everyone needs activists, but it would be good to see more activists be organic. Why do you need to have NGOs there?”

Virak said the threat of closure could be a wakeup call that NGOs needed to do more to support community activism rather than acting as messengers to advance the agenda of donors.

“I don’t want them to step back because of fear,” he said of prominent rights groups. Rather, he hopes they may do it as “a strategic way of clearing the path for other people.” He continued, “there needs to be more innovation and disruption. But the clients are international NGOs, so the bureaucracy is difficult to change. The change will be slow.”

Nay Vanda, a senior monitor at ADHOC, spent plenty of time thinking about how human rights defenders could change tack during his 427 days in prison. “We need to do something different,” he said in an interview at ADHOC’s office in Phnom Penh, just days after his release in June.

Vanda said there needed to be a more deliberate and collaborative effort between NGOs and activists to build support on the ground and to spread the responsibility and risk among various actors in advocacy efforts, making it more difficult for authorities to quell dissent by targeting certain individuals or entities.

“Monks, activists, youth groups, they are all willing to fight for freedom. It should be like flying V,” Vanda said. “Everyone uses less energy that way. And when it’s their turn, they can move to the front. If the one in the front becomes tired, they can move to the back and the group keeps going.”

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About the author

  • Colin Meyn

    Colin Meyn has been a journalist in Cambodia for the past nine years. He is currently an editor at Southeast Asia Globe, a monthly magazine based in Phnom Penh. He previously worked at The Cambodia Daily, where he led political coverage of the 2013 national election and its aftermath before spending three years as the editor-in-chief. Colin also launched Lift, a weekly dual-language magazine in The Phnom Penh Post targeting Cambodia youth. Colin has an undergraduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in Topsham, Maine.