Cambodian government and associations’ tussle continues

Posted: January 10, 2012 in Cambodia, Economic Development
Tags: , ,

I learned last year that there are 1,000 NGOs operating in Cambodia. As you’d expect, many of them are not just relief organisations but also advocacy organisations. As such they will inevitably press for changes to government policy.

The government, for its part, finds this rather annoying, especially since many of them are funded by overseas donors. It’s easy to see how they could interpret this as foreign meddling, destabilising the government.

A law has been tabled which seeks to regulate the conduct of NGOs, particularly by requiring them to register themselves and then adhering to standards of accountability. The official justification is to prevent dangerous associations that undermine the rule of law.

It is now on a fourth round of drafting and still there remains a clamour of opposition. So far as I can tell, the proposed restrictions don’t seem to go further than red tape. Perhaps the NGOs fear that the government will mis-use its new power to regulate, stifling the voice of civil society. That is exactly what happened here in Australia about five years ago when the Government started inserting clauses into contracts with charities that required them to vet press releases with the relevant Government minister before they could go public.

What’s at stake

Whether or not it is as sinister as people fear, one of the intentions behind the law is undoubtedly to reduce criticism of the government.

To understand why people are so concerned, look at what is happening right now in next-door Thailand to dozens of government critics including labour activist and magazine editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk. Somyot is on trial for breaching the country’s lèse majesté law by “insulting the king”.

First of all such a law seems a bit outdated; it’s not like we live in an era where royals last long if they aren’t up to scratch, but that’s not the point. All he did was criticise the government, making this even more alarming. Cambodians are understandably sensitive about a government that doesn’t tolerate dissenting voices. Political parties don’t have all the answers; other voices – associations and an independent press – are an essential part of a functioning democracy.

Negotiations continue. Let’s hope they don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

(Meanwhile the Thais, for their part, are pushing for the lèse majesté law to be wound back but any change seems highly unlikely)

Somyot in prison

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, on trial for criticising the Thai government

Related post:

Further reading:

  • Creating Precarity: Labour Law in Cambodia (Asia Monitor Resource Centre) – 2008 article about the formal/informal workforce distinction in Cambodia’s current labour law and the problems that has led to. It seems this will persist despite changes to the associations law because it only regulates unions and not workers themselves.

More from the blogosphere:

  1. […] week I reported about wrangling in Cambodia regarding a proposed law to regulate […]

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