Local and international civil society groups in Cambodia warn a new law aimed at non-governmental organizations could harm the country's economy and slow development.
Speaking to journalists at a press conference Monday in Phnom Penh, representatives of nearly 270 international and national civil societies working in Cambodia claimed the draft law, called “Stop and Consult,” will impact over 4,000 development projects if enacted without proper consultations.
They warned that more than one million Cambodians could be laid off as the measure puts pressure on NGOs and forces some of them to close.
“The social impact will be severe,” said Soeung Saroeun, executive director for Cooperation Committee for Cambodia. “I would like to ask who helped the orphans, disable children, and HIV/AIDS positive children previously? Who helped Cambodia to the [status of] first rank country in fight HIV/AIDS? It is civil society.”
Sarah Sitts, country director of Pact Cambodia, said the country will lose $600 to $700 million in development projects annually once the law past.
“The last publicly available draft of LANGO [Law on Associations & Non-Governmental Organizations] would place restrictions on budgets, which would threaten [international NGOs'] ability to run cost-effective projects,” she said. “We expect millions of Cambodians would feel the impact across all fields, from health and education to livelihoods, environment and good governance.”
Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for Licadho, said the new law is not needed because civil law already covers registrations for NGOs. He said the new law is meant to stop the land rights demonstrations.
“If the law is ratified, the local associations will be illegal because they cannot register,” he said. "Activists will be punished by the law for joining illegal associations.”
But Phay Siphan, spokesman at the council of ministers, rejected the claims, saying the law will work transparently to improve the working process of those NGOs. He added that the civil society groups have a hidden agenda.
“These claims are based on their imagination. [Those who oppose the law] are hiding their secret works," he said. "This law will not discourage the development activities of Cambodia.”
He suggested the NGOs should have waited until the law was sent to the National Assembly, where they will be able to offer their suggestions. The civil society groups want consultations before the measure is approved and sent to the parliament.
The Cambodian government has been drafting the measure since 2010, but no public consultations have been held. Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said his government will approve the draft law by May before sending it to the National Assembly for further debate.
According to the draft law obtained by VOA, the legislation, if ratified, 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 their work progress and financial reports regularly.
Article 25 and 30 of the law states that any organization will be erased from the registration list if it fails to report to the ministries.
Cambodian Farmer Community Coordinator Theng Savoeun said during the news conference Monday the law would likely impact small associations such as his, as they are unable to register and submit regular reports to the government.
“Once the law [is] enacted, it will require [farmers] to register their association at the Ministry of Interior, so their land, which is in trouble, would be taken,” he said. “Another point is: article 25 of the law requires them to submit the working and financial reports, which they do not have enough ability to do. Therefore, the draft law is pressure [on] our rights.”
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.