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.