Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Curtailing civil society in the Kingdom

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011 to protest against the NGO law. LICADHO
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 15 June 2015)

Several laws currently under consideration are threatening to bring about the end of free civil society in Cambodia. Several others have recently been passed, radically reforming our judiciary and rules governing electoral campaigning in a manner that centralises power in the executive branch and erodes the checks and balances that a healthy democracy requires.

The recently passed Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly also prohibits civil society organisations from making statements or conducting any other activities deemed to be supportive of political parties during election periods, which some fear could be used to stop civil society from asking questions, criticising candidates or seeking to better inform voters. Others are looming – some shelved, some threatening to pass – focusing on cybercrime, trade unions, land use and other issues related to the free exercise of our human rights.

The draft law on associations and NGOs (LANGO) is the government’s most recent attempt to push through legislation that has the potential to undermine human rights without genuine and broad public consultations. The last draft of the LANGO was seen in 2011, and was criticised for giving the government overly broad powers to shut down civil society organisations in a way that many feared was open to abuse.

The law lay dormant until May when Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that it would be passed that month. As the government has refused to release the new draft, speculation on its content and potential impact has grown steadily among civil society organisations, donors and the diplomatic community. However, now the Council of Ministers has reportedly approved a new text, and a leaked version has been widely distributed, a version that confirms many observers’ fears that the law would be worse than the one proposed in 2011.

The law in its current form makes no distinction between community-based organisations and other kinds of associations, and includes mandatory registration requirements for all NGOs and associations working in the country, prohibiting any activity by unregistered groups. These provisions would enable the authorities to restrict the legitimate activities of a wide range of organisations, including local community and grassroots groups and social movements.

Equally concerning is the vagueness of some of the language contained in the text. The government can refuse to register organisations that “jeopardise peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society”, ambiguous terms that are clearly open to broad interpretation and potential political manipulation.

Furthermore, the law states that foreign associations and foreign and domestic NGOs must remain “neutral toward all political parties”, and introduces harsh sanctions for failing to comply with the law.

All in all, the law will seriously undermine the rights to freedom of association and expression, impair citizens’ constitutional right to participate actively in the political life of the nation and undermine civil society’s legitimate role in holding public authorities to account.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition minority leader Sam Rainsy have publicly embraced what they call a political “culture of dialogue”. But so far, sadly, that dialogue has only taken place between the two of them and their high-level staff, and has not been extended to include the public or civil society.

At the same time, a number of local and international organisations have come together to kick off a campaign urging the government to STOP AND CONSULT on the LANGO and other critical laws likely to have a negative impact on human rights.

As part of these efforts, I joined a delegation of Cambodian civil society members in Washington to call on the US and other governments to urge the government of Cambodia to be more transparent, inclusive and consultative. As I walked the halls of Congress in Washington from one meeting to another, I gained energy from the respect and empathy I found. But each of those steps also highlighted for me what could soon be a fantasy: walking the halls of parliament in my own country to advocate for change.

Members of civil society in Cambodia must have explicit permission to even set foot in our National Assembly. Although members of the government have said they support the idea of consultations, we have yet to see the proof of it. Instead, as our STOP AND CONSULT campaign gained momentum, an official warned that those who criticise the government, even with something as simple as a tweet, would be punished.

Cambodia’s democracy was hard won. After a civil war and a devastating genocide, my country now has a constitution that guarantees our rights. But we need more than words on paper. A lack of transparency and inclusive dialogue around law making is threatening to close the space for those who work every day to provide services to their fellow citizens and make our country better. This is why we are calling on the government to draft a law to ensure that the legislative process takes into consideration the views of multiple stakeholders including civil society, and most importantly, the public. We’re calling on the international community to stand with us.

Now back in Cambodia, I still hold out hope that when tomorrow comes, citizens like me will still be able to speak and serve our fellow citizens freely. Our future depends on it.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Human Rights and Peace Campaign Nyobay Social Politics

Cambodia: Where is human rights trend heading to?

I was leaving a private sector work to join with civil society organization as I believe I could not belong to private sector, then it has been 8 years already when I looked back to my first start in human rights work. My first start back then was not a welcoming moment as the leader of the organization (Kem Sokha back then and now the deputy leader of main opposition party) and few other human rights activists were arrested in connection to the human rights day celebration. With that incident, I shall run a way if I am scared of this risky job, but I did not. I was at office during that time of Kem Sokha’s arrest while I came on weekend to clear pending tasks. That moment  inspired me to work further in my role to contribute to the the whole organization work in collaboration with other community to demand for their release and promotion of human rights respect in Cambodia.

I kept saying the human rights situation is fluctuated like the economic graph where it was up and down at certain period. Here the graph where I has drawn up:

Human Rights Situation Graph, drawn by the Author, Sopheap Chak (CC BY-ND 2.0).

After years of working with the expectation to see the trend of human rights situation would went up as the government would envision for the economic growth where the two could converged along the way together, the scenario of human rights has returned back to the point where I had started in late 2005. Now the question is whether the trend would move on, will it be up or further down?

Cambodian government, although under criticism of failure to protect and promote human rights for years, there has been attempt to address the criticism and 2013, the year of 5th mandate national election saw a mixture of development where restriction was applied in the mid of promising development of people participation in democratic process. Thanking to a not-yet restricted social media where majority of youths utilize this tools to disseminate and discuss political subject. The common self-censorship attitude appears to be lessen among most commentators who bravely speaks in their name and their identity to criticize government policies.

The ongoing political deadlock in which parties clashed on result of election held since 28 July 2013 has still not yet reached its common door for political resolution. With election result showing the decline of voters’ support to the long-time ruling party made the government leading by the Prime Minister Hun Sen to promise for an in-dept reform in its governance performance. Such commitment shall reflect well with policy formulation and implementation. Yet, the recent violent crackdown on protests by oppositional party and other civil actors such as unions and land activists may draw back that promise and further affect the score that people would place for this ruling party.

While many are in line with opposition party whose slogan for change of this country may not purely in line for political support but for the change they want to see, the opposition is mandated to  set clear strategy for change they had promised too; otherwise the support they has enjoyed to back up their political agenda would slowly decrease.

Now the main question is what next the political parties would need to correct the current situation? As a human right advocate, I condemn the violent means that affect human rights situation and parties need to restore this situation immediately before it would get even worse. It even become necessary for the claiming government to ensure that their in-dept reform including the improvement of public service and functions shall mainstream human rights principle so that its claiming rule of law and democratic state is translated in real practice. The current violent crackdown resulting to death of civilians and protesters must be properly investigated without finger point of blame and those who commit of this act must be brought to justice otherwise the culture of impunity is always there. The arrest of activists who exercised their right to freedom of expression and assembly and crackdown on their demand is not going to solve the root-cause of problem, instead it would just like adding fire on fuel, where it made the current political situation even worse.

The political solution I could see to address this deadlock is when both parties would agree now to set the rule of game together given the condition here accepted first: Re-election after National Election Committee would be reformed and recognized by all parties! For ruling party who claimed of victory could win with dignity by accepting this and if you are the winner you shall be confident in your voters again. For opposition party who kept contesting the election results, please mind your position that you are in battle field in the game you accept to enter (if re-election would happen), you are in to accept the result, if not, there is no way that countless elections would satisfy yours (I remembered during the CNRP party are to discuss to boycott election or not, Kem Sokah claimed to boycott while Sam Rainsy claimed to join election (meaning to accept the standard of the game) and yet party could contest result later if dissatisfied). So, my message to both parties, please agree to the point to make our nations proud of you both!

Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Can Cambodia Adopt 2010 World's Richest Man Record?

By Sopheap Chak

While the world is facing financial downturn, richest men on the earth have been still recorded. My interest to the 2010 World’s Richest Man record is the Mexican Carlos Slim who also broke the record for 2007 when i compared him to a well-known Cambodian richest man, Tycoon Kith Meng. My commentators debated whether my assumption about Kit Meng as the Cambodian richest man is corrected or should be someone else or our Prime Minister.

With this debate and current development of draft law on Anti-Corruption which have been adopted in the National Assembly this Thursday, the Cambodian’s richest man record can be prevailed since the law outlines for asset declaration among high ranking officials and civil society leaders (this asset declaration has draw much discussion on why civil society leaders are also subjected to this declaration). However, this premise is questionable as key proposals for independence of Anti-Corruption Commission and publicity of asset declaration have been ignored.

If transparency and Anti-Corruption is the aim of Cambodian government, i hope the detail of asset declaration either put by the Anti-Corruption Commission or any agency can be made publicly.