CNRP President Sam Rainsy stands next to Prime Minister Hun Sen at the National Assembly three months ago at the start of the “Culture of Dialogue.”
Khmer Times/Muny Sithyna and Ven Rathavong
Sunday, 12 July 2015
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Facing an opposition boycott and a European Union threat over foreign aid, the government plans to vote into law today a controversial draft law restricting NGOs.
On Friday Prime Minister Hun Sen said the bill will pass his party because his party controls an absolute majority in the National Assembly.
“All CPP lawmakers must be present at the National Assembly session,” the Prime Minister told ministers, referring to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as he spoke at the weekly closed-door Cabinet meeting.
Referring to the opposition, he said: “For CNRP lawmakers, if you join the session or not, it is your problem. We, the government, will need at least 62 MPs from the CPP to pass the bill.”
On Sunday, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party announced that its parliamentary bloc, a minority of 55 seats, will boycott today’s session. The Prime Minister’s decision to go ahead with a vote came hours after the European Parliament adopted a resolution warning that Cambodia could lose up to $700 million a year in development aid due to the new law.
World Trend to Restrict NGOs
But Cambodia’s government is joining a trend by many developing or authoritarian countries – from Russia to China to Honduras. In the last three years, 60 nations have taken steps to curb NGOs, according to a survey conducted by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
“Thousands of foreign-funded non-government organizations from Latin America and Africa to the Middle East and Asia have come up against authorities imposing or drafting laws which put a squeeze on their foreign donations, jeopardizing their work,” Reuters reported in a survey story from New Delhi last week.
This trend may be a reaction to the ballooning amount of aid, largely from the West, to civil society groups. According to a separate study by Development Initiatives, Western aid to foreign civil society groups increased more than six fold in the last decade – $2.7 billion in 2004 to $17.7 billion in 2013.
In Cambodia, most of the estimated 4,000 NGOs do valuable health, education and social work that the government is incapable or unwilling to do. But during the 2013-2014 protests, the government clearly felt besieged by a minority of NGOs, many funded by the West, that were involved in politics, supporting the street protests.
NGOs Worry about ‘Vague’ Law
In response, the NGOs, which are largely unregulated, complain that the proposed law, known as LANGO, is written in such a vague way that police will be authorized to shut down groups at will.
“LANGO will be used by the government to deny us justice,” starts a full-page, last-minute ad that ran in several newspapers this weekend.
The ad is signed by what appears to be an ad hoc group, “Citizens Groups Involved in the Campaign to Say No to the NGO & Trade Union Laws.” The ad prints a website address that did not work on Sunday.
In its resolution Thursday, the European Parliament also asked Cambodia’s government to withdraw the draft of a new trade union law. In the resolution, the “EuroParl” did not threaten to cut the nearly $2 billion in aid the European Union is to extend to Cambodia through 2020. Nor did it threaten to dethrone Europe from its position as top importer of Cambodia’s top export – garments.
Instead, the EuroParl resolution warned that Cambodia would alienate foreign donors by imposing registration requirements on NGOs, and by creating the perception of an anti-NGO climate here.
Government Stands up to West
In response, government officials say that Western foreign aid will still be welcome here, and that some NGO leaders and their foreign supporters are overreacting. They also say that the government will not bend to foreign dictates.
In this case, as in the recent border dispute with Vietnam, the government’s spine seems to have been stiffened by massive aid and investment from China, money that comes with no visible strings attached.
At bilateral meetings last week, Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng said that Chinese investment in Cambodia has reached $10 billion. In recent years, China has built all of Cambodia’s hydroelectric dams, many of its bridges and about one third of Cambodia’s road network.
In face of almost certain defeat on LANGO, Cambodia’s opposition is taking the boycott route.
Last Wednesday, when hearings were held at the National Assembly, Cambodia’s two largest human rights groups, Licadho and Adhoc, and the CNRP, boycotted the National Assembly workshop on the LANGO bill.
On Sunday, the CNRP declared that its members would boycott today’s plenary session and asked the national assembly to withdraw the bill.
“The CNRP stance is not to support the LANGO draft at this current moment, and call for the government to step back and reconsider to amend this draft law and for the national assembly to not approve this draft law,” said the party’s statement.
Culture of Dialogue to Continue?
Despite this clash, CNRP leadership said the party will still continue to practice the culture of dialogue with the ruling party, starting with an attempt to amend the draft law together.
“Many articles in this draft LANGO are still unclear,” CNRP’s spokesman Yem Ponhearith told Khmer Times. He said that if the opposition wins the next general election in 2018, it would amend the law on its own.
Ny Chakrya, Head of Adhoc’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Section, said he supports the opposition tactic of not participating in today’s parliamentary session.
“If the opposition’s stance is to oppose the law, then there’s no use in participating in the session,” he said. “They should boycott from the start to make it easy for the people to evaluate that the opposition party truly oppose the bill.”
Join the Debate
In contrast, political analyst, Sok Touch said the opposition should take their seats in today’s meeting and debate each article on the bill.
“CNRP must enter,” said Mr. Sok Touch. “Whether they will vote or not, it is each member’s business. Not entering means they cannot debate and throw away the chance to discuss.”
“Which part don’t you like?” he asked opposition lawmakers. “It’s impossible to hate every part of the law. Tell them which part that you don’t like, and debate in the Assembly to show that you have fulfilled your roles as people’s representatives.”
Additional reporting by James Brooke