PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The National Assembly yesterday passed the controversial draft law on associations and NGOs, amidst intense security – which included blockades on the road in front of it – as well as a boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Recue Party (CNRP).
As expected, all 68 lawmakers from the ruling Cambodia People’s Party – which drafted the legislation – voted in favor of it.
Lawmaker Lork Kheng said she would scrutinize how the law was enforced to ensure that it does not restrict NGOs. She also said she believed that the international agencies and foreign governments that fund local NGOs will be happy with the law once they see how it is enforced because it will ensure greater transparency in how their money is spent.
She did not mention, however, that the European Union – the largest grant donor to Cambodia – has warned that funding to Cambodia could be cut if the legislation passed.
20 Years in the Making
Speaking after the morning session, Interior Minister Sar Kheng described the law as mild and said the government has spent 20 years drafting it.
When asked about the boycott by the CNRP, Mr. Kheng was unfazed, saying it was the right of that party’s lawmakers to do so. The boycott will have no effect on the so-called “culture of dialogue” between the parties, the minister added.
During the morning session, however, Mr. Kheng said that as majority leader of the National Assembly he had never received any recommendations from the opposition on amending the draft. “I never received a written request or formal spoken request from the CNRP to amend the law,” he said.
Like his colleague Lork Kheng, he said the government will amend the law if it finds that it violates rights during its enforcement.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said that Mr. Kheng’s claim that he had not received objections from the CNRP about the law were false.
“We requested many times to discuss and amend the draft, but they did not accept it,” Mr. Ponhearith said, adding that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the law.
He also said his party has no regrets about boycotting the session, explaining that the process of drafting the law needed more input before it was sent to the National Assembly.
“All relevant parties should have been involved in the process,” he said.
The CNRP does not support any law that violates the rights of people or NGOs, Mr. Ponhearith said.
CPP lawmaker Sous Yara told yesterday’s session that the statement from NGO representatives last week that they receive about $600-700 million every year differed from the government’s figure. According to its reports, about $280 million flows to NGOs each year. “Where is $320 million,” he asked. If that sum was used to fund terrorism it could destabilize the country, he added.
The law will benefit the people, and NGOs will have to spend what they receive in accord with their goals, Mr. Yara added.
Transparency International Cambodia executive director Preap Kol said the government had failed to listen to the concerns of both national and international NGOs.
NGOs will now monitor enforcement of the new law because lawmakers in the National Assembly affirmed that benefit and protect NGOs.
Part of yesterday’s session was also used to blast the opposition. Mr. Yara said CNRP lawmakers were failing to adhere to their duties by boycotting the National Assembly and joining forces with NGOs to protest the law.
“We are members of the National Assembly. We should be brave enough to debate in the Assembly. We should discuss the draft, and how to defend NGOs,” he said.
“It is very regretful that the people pay tax to the government and provide salaries for all of you, but none of you took your seats here to protect NGOs,” Mr. Yara added.
According to the so-called culture of dialogue, CNRP lawmakers should debate in the National Assembly not protest on the streets.
Mr. Ponhearith dismissed such statements, saying the CNRP had clearly shown it did not support the legislation.
Evicted Communities Show Support for NGOs
Outside the National Assembly protesters gathered to show support for NGOs. They primarily comprised people who had received help from NGOs during land disputes.
Boeung Tompun community member Lon Ly, 34, said he opposed the legislation because it threatened the right to freedom of assembly.
“NGOs helped me with everything. That is why I am trying to protect NGOs,” Van Lim Eng, a 72-year-old woman who had been evicted from Borey Keila in Phnom Penh.
“I am very thankful to the NGOs and associations that helped us for a long time. So I have to struggle for NGO rights as well as my own because they might be able to help me to get my home back,” she added.
Protestors hold a banner saying they will not vote for any party that supports the law. KT Photo: Fabien Mouret