Civil society leaders seek open dialogue with Cambodian government

A demonstration opposing the Cambodian government's proposed NGO and associations law held May 1, 2011, in Phnom Penh. Photo by: daijo1 / CC BY-NC-ND

Nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups in Cambodia are calling on the government to open consultations over a dreaded law they fear would curtail their operations in the Southeast Asian nation.

Cambodia has been tightening its grip on civil society over the past few years. When an early draft of the NGO law was released four years ago, civil society advocates raised concern over the extensive restrictions it seemed to put on the sector. But the law seemed to have been shelved as there had been no developments on its progress — until Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in April that the draft Law on Associations and Nongovernmental Organizations will be ratified “in the near future.”

“The last draft that was circulated dates back to 2011, and it contained many restrictive provisions,” Maina Kiai, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, told Devex. “Hence, the widespread concern about the current draft’s speedy enactment without proper consultations.”

The Cambodian strongman had said previously that the law needs to be enacted so that the government can “regulate” NGOs’ source of funding and prevent these organizations from financing terrorist groups that have been plaguing the country for decades.

Phnom Penh has long had a “complex history” with the country’s civil society, Kiai explained, noting that while the sector can be “very vibrant and vocal and has traditionally has some space to operate,” this amount of space “ebbs and flows” depending on the whim of those who are in power.

Regular crackdowns have been reported, and for various reasons. It may be because a group has, in the government’s view, gone “too far” or has touched on a subject deemed taboo. But such crackdowns have also served simply as a warning to other NGOs.

“Advocacy NGOs often face charges of defamation, incitement of violence and other crimes — not consistently but selectively,” Kiai explained further.

Cambodia however is not the only country that is restricting the space for civil society to operate. In China, for instance, many international NGOs are expecting to close shop once the government enacts a law strictly regulating their operations there. But while China’s NGO law will supposedly be enacted by the end of the year, Cambodia’s LANGO will reportedly be ratified in the next few weeks.

To ensure gains in reconciliation and reconstruction in Cambodia, civil society leaders Chak Sopheap and Saroeun Soeung call for a more participatory and consultative process in crafting new laws.

Need for consultations

Apart from the fast-tracked process, Kiai is worried about the fact that this version of LANGO has not been made available to civil society for review.

“The very fact that civil society has not been involved in the consultation process this time is clear evidence that the government doesn’t really care what civil society thinks,” he said. “It suggests that the law is not for them, it’s for the authorities. The failure to consult indicates a high level of distrust — even contempt.”

And this is a view largely shared by the country’s civil society organizations.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told Devex the government has to realize that the legislation process itself is as important as that of the resulting law, and that every relevant stakeholder should have a say in how it will be formed.

“It’s not just about the law on associations and NGO, but it’s the whole process of legislation. The legislation process in Cambodia often comes in a secret manner. There’s no access to the draft law, no consultations,” she said. “We want … government to be more transparent and to be more participatory.”

In response, prominent CSOs in the Southeast Asian country are turning to social media to take a stand. They have launched a social media campaign called Stop and Consult, which intends to convince the government to halt the process and begin an open dialogue with citizens. The campaign is gaining traction through popular social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.

The campaign is about more than one law, however. It’s about fostering an environment where civil society can grow, thrive and voice their concerns, Saroeun Soeung, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, told Devex. In the past couple of years, civil society has been contributing almost 25 percent to the country’s national budget, he added, noting that this is a significant contribution that no government should ignore.

In the face of a new law that threatens to curtail movement of NGOs and CSOs in Cambodia, Chak Sopheap and Saroeun Soeung ask donors to beef up support and increase flexibility to better address organizational needs.

Moving forward

While the future of NGOs and CSOs in Cambodia hangs in the balance, the three experts said the international development community should step up and support their efforts to convince the government to open up consultations on LANGO.

This, according to Kiai, is a no brainer as “this is how democracies work.” About 300 organizations have already signed on to a statement calling on the government to “stop and consult” before enacting the law.

“I don’t see anyone praising the current process, which eliminates civil society input,” he said. “It’s a fundamental tenet of democracy, as well as human rights, for the public to have an opportunity to examine draft laws — in their actual form — in a meaningful consultation process.”

Sopheap and Soeung echoed this sentiment, adding that all stakeholders can move forward by activating short-term and long-term solutions to the issue. The CCC chief further said that multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations should urge the government to delay the process of the law’s enactment and call for wider consultation with civil society.

Sopheap meanwhile explained that development stakeholders, local and international, should boost efforts to ensure there is an environment for civil society to thrive and contribute to the country’s development. The goal is the same: to uplift the lives of people.

“There are a number of laws but we have to make sure that ... development partners should reconsider the approach [that] can support the civil society organizations,” she concluded. “There has to be flexibility in terms of funding support or other technical support that can address the need of civil society.”

What do you think about the draft law that is expected to regulate NGOs and CSOs in Cambodia? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the authors

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.
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    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.