Cambodia Seeks to Rein in the NGOs

The Cambodian government, which has long been bedeviled by the scores of non-governmental organizations operating in the country, has set out to draft a law designed to still their criticism.

The draft, in circulation since December 2010, would require compulsory registration to operate in the country. In addition, it carries a long list of sub-clauses that the NGOs say would make it virtually impossible to operate. There are no legal safeguards or meaningful judicial review, nor is there right of appeal, the organizations say. Denial of registration appears to be irrevocable. Hundreds of groups have signed petitions saying the most recent public draft of the law continues to be unacceptable.

The country has yet to recover fully from the secret 1960s carpet bombing by US B52s during the Vietnam War, followed by the years in which the murderous Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 2 million people, either by outright murder or by starvation. The Khmer Rouge wrecked virtually all of the social institutions in the country and substituted nothing in their place. It remains strewn with land mines.

Accordingly, as many as 200 international NGOs have been operating in the country, many of them working to keep the government in line on depredations against the environment in addition to seeking to rehabilitate, rebuild and develop the country. They have continued to provide the most basic of social services. They are present in all of the country’ provinces, promoting national reforms in health, education, human rights, developing a legal system and advocating for women and children’s rights, among other issues.

In addition, there are believed to be nearly 400 local NGOs and 600 associations registered with the government. An estimated 13,000 Cambodians are believed to be working in the NGO sector, usually holding an often-recalcitrant government’s feet to the fire on any number of issues.

Untold thousands of westerners are working for the NGOs as well. Many have come under considerable criticism on charges that they are isolated from the people they serve, many drawing enormous salaries and driving around in SUVs while mainly working on grants to keep them in the country while they do very little other than attend parties and live the good life.

While that criticism may be valid, the larger number of relief organizations and environmentalists are regarded as essential to Cambodia’s progress, and the law, they say, is designed to mute their criticism.

“Cambodia’s international donors have spent billions of dollars of development aid funding programs to strengthen and build the capacity of Cambodia’s civil society,” said Simon Taylor, the director of Global Witness, in a press release from Licadho, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights.

“These initiatives risk being rendered ineffective by this proposed law. If the donors stand by while the government adopts this law, they cannot in good conscience claim to be working in the interests of Cambodia’s development objectives.”

The NGOs say they are the only bulwark between a repressive government and an independent civil society. Hundreds from across the world met in Siem Reap at the first of the month to plan opposition to the law. Among the principal opponents are Amnesty International, Forum Asia, Front Line Defenders, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch and the Southeast Asia Press Association.

“We are accountable for a quarter of all aid in Cambodia. If this law comes into force, it will restrict our ability to help the poor and vulnerable,” Lun Borithy, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as telling delegates to the Global Assembly on Development Effectiveness meeting in Siem Reap. “Cambodia stands to lose more if this law passes.”

Caroline McCausland, country director of ActionAid, said NGOs “respect” the government’s right to legislate. “All we ask is that the government agrees to let us have voluntary registration. This law really isn’t necessary,” she said, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

Although a high-level meeting at Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior has been convened to discuss changes to the mandatory registration law, there has been no indication so far that the law will be changed.