Prak Chan Thul
Cambodia has come under fire over a draft law to regulate non-governmental organisations that critics, including the United States, say is another attempt by the authorities to restrict public freedom and silence dissent. Skip related content
Cambodia says it wants to regulate more than 3,000 foreign and local NGOs and civil society groups, but opponents argue the law will give the state powers to shut them down for no reason and with no right of appeal.
The draft follows the passage of draconian laws in the past 18 months that increased punishment for defamation and placed restrictions on protests. Rights groups say that is designed to intimidate government critics and the political opposition.
Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the law would give the Interior Ministry "boundless discretition" to disband any body it disagreed with and many organisations would be unable to meet registration requirements.
"Such a result will have chilling repercussions for the freedom of association and expression of ordinary people and will significantly reduce the democratic space in Cambodia," he said. Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest countries, is enjoying an unprecedented period of stability and economic growth after decades of civil war.
But critics and aid donors say its democratic credentials are still lagging those of other Asian countries and that its human rights record is worsening.
During a visit to Cambodia this week, Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said the proposed law was unnecessary.
"The United States has made clear that we have concern about the law, that we see Cambodian civil society as something that Cambodia should be proud of," he told reporters on Tuesday.
"There's a vibrant group of voices here and that's something that ought to be protected and preserved," Baer said. "We don't yet understand the necessity of the law."
Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party is widely accused of abusing its parliamentary majority to pass laws curtailing freedom of expression and leaning on the judiciary to punish critics.
Political commentator Chea Vannath said the draft law could lead to a public backlash and limit the country's attractiveness as it seeks to lure foreign investors and tourists.
"People in some countries have risen up against their governments, causing foreign investors a big loss," she said, referring to anti-government unrest in several Arab states. "It is understandable that investors want to invest in a country that is fully democratic."
The government defended the bill, saying the law was required under the constitution and would help NGOs do their work better.
"There are increasing numbers of NGOs and associations so there needs to be a law to regulate them," Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said.
(Editing by Martin Petty and Alan Raybould)