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Inside the Cabinet Debate on the NGO Law

T. Mohan / Khmer Times Share:
Cambodian civil society groups protested to oppose the draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations in 2011 when the initial draft was released. Photo: Courtesy Licadho

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Contrary to popular belief, the government consulted non-governmental organizations at least three times before the NGO draft law was finally sent to the cabinet last week for approval.

The first consultation was on January 2011, with some 276 representatives from nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups  and other associations. The most recent was in December, with 153 organizations and associations consulted.

Inside the government, the draft law has been studied and discussed at the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Economy and Finance, the Council for Development of Cambodia and the Council of Jurists at the Council of Ministers. Twice it was held back from being sent to the cabinet for discussion and approval. 

The most recent version of draft law, adopted by the Cabinet June 5, has nine chapters and 41 articles. It addresses a diverse number of issues, such as the need for NGOs to have local counterparts in order to register with the Foreign Ministry. It regulates non-governmental organizations involvement in microfinance lending activities.

Khmer Times has learned from government sources and transcripts of the June 5 cabinet meeting that – contrary to popular belief – the cabinet indeed debated the law. Changes were made before the final draft of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was sent to the National Assembly for debate and vote.

At the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly said that it has taken Cambodia 20 years to come out with this draft law and that Cambodia is about the only country in the world not to have a law governing non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations.
The law was first drafted in 1995. Plans to approve it in 2012 failed because that year   was politically a “difficult year,” and 2013 was the year of the general election.

The prime minister also said that he instructed the Economy Ministry to investigate microfinance institutions (MFIs) that have been operating without licenses. He said that of the 400 odd MFIs currently operating in Cambodia, some are carrying out activities not consistent with those of a micro-lending institution.

“This thus necessitates us to explain to the National Assembly on why some parts of the law is related to the microfinance institutions and non-governmental organizations,” the prime minister said. 

“We do not understand the role of some non-governmental organizations which have been investing in the microfinance business,” he continued. “Where did they get their funds from? What is their real objective? Why are they investing in this business under the umbrella of an NGO? And why should they not be subjected to taxes?” 

Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to officials who attended the Cabinet meeting but are not permitted to speak to the media, took great pains to explain why some articles had to be amended and why others had to be deleted or changed.

“He acknowledged that there are some non-governmental organizations and associations working with public institutions and  agencies, such as the National Assembly and Senate, NEC, Constitutional Council, and Supreme Council of Magistracy,” said one official who attended the cabinet meeting. “And, as such, the draft had to be clear for the public to understand and to avoid misinterpretation of the LANGO.”

The prime minister also shot down the initial contents of Article 12, which called for foreign-funded NGOs to have local partners before they could contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Mr. Hun Sen questioned as to why this was in the draft and suggested that Article 12 be amended to state that foreign funded non-governmental organizations must be permitted to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly and not impede these with the requirement of a partnership with the local organization,” the source continued.

“These foreign-funded organizations must be permitted to sign an MOU or register with the Foreign Ministry right there and then, and not be compelled to have a local partnership as that may discourage them from operating or coming to Cambodia,” he said. “They, the foreign-funded NGOs, could however have local partners to act as their agents when applying for a license.”

The Cabinet also debated Article 16 which stated that the operating budget for  non-governmental organizations should be restricted to not more than 25 percent of their proposed budget, and whether this proposal made sense. It was subsequently deleted.

Debate also revolved around a perceived lack of clarity of  Article 22 which refers to fiscal reports and salary taxes. This was amended for clarity.

Prime Minister Hun Sen also reportedly pointed out that some NGOs want to genuinely serve the needs of  the Cambodian  people in areas such as short-term medical treatment, and if they were forced to collaborate with local organizations, it might discourage them.

He cited the examples of humanitarian medical aid brought by hospital ships operated by the navies of India and the United States.

The prime minister noted that the government cooperates well with many NGOs. He cited the Arun Rah Children Village, in Kandal, where the government provided free passports to Cambodian  children when the NGO needed  these children to travel abroad to raise funds. The funds were used to operate  three orphanage centers – in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.

At the meeting, Minister Sar Kheng said the law on NGOs should specify a timeframe for short-term engagements for humanitarian assistance. He said it would be difficult for authorities to monitor whether the activities would impact Cambodia’s security or create chaos.

He maintained that for genuine, short-term humanitarian missions such as visiting naval units, the units or agencies could contact the counterpart government agencies for consent and facilitation.

Senior Minister Serei Kosal also raised the issue of individuals who chair more than one non-governmental organization at a time. He cited Rong Chhun who heads the Cambodian Independent Teachers Union, another union, and an organization related to the Cambodia-Vietnam border. He is also a member of the new National Election Committee.

Officials stressed that the Royal Government’s intention of implementing the LANGO is to maintain public order and social stability.

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