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Cambodia Passes Controversial NGO Law

Police officers block a street as protesters march to the Cambodia National Assembly during a protest in Phnom Penh, July 13, 2015.
Police officers block a street as protesters march to the Cambodia National Assembly during a protest in Phnom Penh, July 13, 2015.

Despite days of protests and mounting objections from the international community, Cambodia's parliament has approved a draft law that will regulate thousands of non-governmental organizations that operate in the country.

The ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, passed the measure Monday after the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, or CNRP, boycotted the vote.

Critics, such as protester Kim Song, say they fear the law will be used to shut down or curtail the activities of organizations critical of the government.

“I think it has a negative impact on the freedom of speech, expression of opinion," Song said. "Especially, it limits the freedom to create associations to help people in need and in deed. People who face many issues of social injustice. If the law is adopted, many NGOs will face many obstacles to help the people.”

No interference pledged

Lawmaker Hun Many, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the law will not interfere with the operation of NGOs.

“I see that the nature of the law is contrary to what some people claim," he said. "On the contrary, when the law comes into effect, it will help increasing cooperation with the government. We have seen some implementation.”

CNRP lawmaker Yem Bonharith said his party boycotted the vote because the ruling party ignored its concerns.

“We have given our suggestion, consultation in several commissions of the national assembly, requesting amendments and a delay in passage of the law to send back to executive body to review; but, we were ignored," he said. "So if we join the session, they won’t listen to our debate and they would pass the law as it is, anyway.”

Legislation's fallout

If it becomes law, the legislation will require all local associations and NGOs to register at the Ministry of Interior and international NGOs to register at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, all organizations will be required to submit work progress and financial reports regularly.

Any organization that fails to report to the ministries will be erased from the registration list and barred from operating in the country.

The legislation will now be sent to the Senate, the upper house of parliament, which must approve it before it is sent to the king for his signature.

U.S. Ambassador William Todd had called on Cambodian officials to work together to ensure that the law, if passed, will not restrict civil society or suppress the freedoms of expression and assembly. Last week, the European Union urged the government to withdraw the measure from consideration.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.