PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Rights groups in Cambodia are fighting a government they say feels threatened by their growing clout and is just weeks away from shackling them with strict rules crafted without any public consultation.
International rights groups and Western nations are alarmed by the determination of the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades, to ram through a new law.
They fear the measure would impede the work of 5,000 foreign and Cambodian non-government organisations. The government has tried to keep secret the latest draft of the law, which has been in the works for years, and is due to go to parliament soon.
“The law has never been so restrictive,” said rights activist Pen Bonnar, 53, who has become a hero to tens of thousands of Cambodians after 16 years of fighting landgrabbers, illegal loggers, and other forms of injustice. “It will tie us.”
A copy of the draft law, seen by Reuters, requires all NGOs to report their activities and finances to the government, with punishments for breaches ranging from fines and criminal prosecutions to the break-up of the organisation.
It allows the government to take wide-ranging action against the NGOs, targeting them for anything from jeopardising peace, stability and public order to harming national security or Cambodian culture and traditions.
The move will come as no surprise to critics of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), who have accused it of constantly abusing its power by prompting authorities, such as judges, the police and military, to stifle opponents.
He has accused NGOs of acting irresponsibly, including supporting the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is now challenging the CPP’s dominance.
The new law aims to prevent the funding of “terrorism”, Hun Sen says, but his government has not said if such a threat exists.
Civil society need not worry about the law, he said, adding, “It will protect you, support you and let you act freely.”
Cambodia has been widely praised for turning itself into a promising frontier market from war-torn basket case, cutting its ratio of poor among its population to a fifth in 2011, from half in 2004. NGOs played an important role in the process.
But that progress has fueled a black economy and dubious large-scale seizures of lucrative real estate and farmland, a trend often blamed on businessmen in cahoots with politicians.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the draft law was designed to muzzle critics and existing laws adequately covered the NGO sector, the development of which it called one of Cambodia’s “most thriving and important achievements”.
Opposition CNRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said his party would reject the law, but it is almost certain to be passed by parliament, where the ruling party has a majority.
Soeung Saroeun, of the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, a grouping of 160 domestic and international NGOs, said, “This is the worst and most harmful law.”
Earlier this month, Scott Busby, a U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, said the NGO law would make it “impossible to do their crucial work”.
Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez