Groups fight for their lives

Hun Sen's government is getting ready to push through a law that could close non-governmental organisations and others critical of the ruling party

With stickers over their mouths to symbolise the Cambodian government’s attempt to muffle their voices, hundreds of people marched along the dusty streets of Phnom Penh last week, hoping their protest could stop a proposed draconian law regulating the many NGOs operating there.

The protesters have already delivered complaints to the National Assembly and received support from top UN officials, the EU, the US and foreign embassies, yet it appears that the law, described as an “unmitigated disaster” for freedom of speech, is set to pass this month.

“If passed, the new NGO law will be like a knife at the throat of independent civil society organisations in Cambodia,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, told Spectrum.

Other laws that will stifle basic human rights are also in the pipeline.

Essentially, critics say, the NGO law will make criticism of the government, which has been in the tight grip of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen for 30 years, punishable with prison terms.

The proposed law poses “unwarranted restrictions on the rights to freedom of association and expression and creates legal grounds on which to arbitrarily close or deny registration to politically disfavoured NGOs, including those employing human rights defenders”, about 30 international NGOs wrote in a letter to foreign governments, urging them to intervene.

Cambodia already tried to pass a law to regulate the country’s several thousand NGOs in the mid-1990s and again in 2011, but after many protests from civil society groups and the international community, it was put on the back burner. Many breathed a sigh of relief.

Despite consultations with the NGOs, the United Nations and embassies, whose wishes the government claims to have incorporated, the new draft law appears to be even worse than the previous version.
And it is ready to be passed — but had not been by press time — said Naly Pilorge, the long-time head of Licadho, one of the largest and most prolific human rights groups in Cambodia.

One of the most worrying aspects of the proposed law is that any group — including farmers meeting on a regular basis or student clubs — would have to register with the government. Members would face jail if their actions or comments were deemed as jeopardising “peace, stability and public order” or harming “the national security, national unity, culture and traditions of the Cambodian national society”, according to a recently leaked draft.

Naly Pilorge, a Cambodian national, said the vague language was alarming. “Tomorrow, if I wear pink shoes and they say this is against Cambodia’s morale, they can shut us down,” she said.

Licadho has been monitoring the Cambodian government since the end of the civil war in 1992. Over the decades, such organisations have produced countless reports on the notorious abuses of power, widespread land evictions and rampant corruption that still define Cambodia today.

“They enjoy [the freedom] to say whatever they like,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told Spectrum.

All NGOs, clubs and groups will be required to register under the law. That, he said, was to ensure that NGOs were willing to work in line with the government. “We have no intention to curb their activities. We just want them to register so they can be the partner of the government,” Phay Siphan said. Eventually, he added, it would be up to the courts to decide whether a group or NGO was trying to harm national security or morale.

The courts, however, are under the tight grip of the ruling CPP. Transparency International repeatedly found the judiciary to be the weakest link in upholding the rule of law in Cambodia and annually ranks the country as one of the world’s most corrupt. In its surveys, citizens also say they have no faith in the Cambodian legal system. Most see “justice” as something that is served to the ones who have the money to pay for it.

Examples of this can be found in hundreds of dubious rulings. Some, like the jailing of radio station owner Mam Sonando for allegedly leading an “insurrection” in a village in Kratie province, stand out.

Framed: Cambodian radio station owner Mam Sonando was jailed and later released after an international outcry over his trial, which raised questions about the judiciary.

Without ever having been to the village, the independent journalist was sentenced for trying to “create a state within the state” after a few hundred farmers protested against the seizing of their land by a private rubber plantation. During the dispute, an unarmed 14-year-old girl was shot dead by security forces.

Mam Sonando, then 70, was sentenced to 20 years in jail. At his trial, the evidence presented against him included a collection of seized farm tools like hoes and some basic hunting equipment, like bows and arrows.

After outrage from human rights groups and harsh criticism by foreign governments, topped by Barack Obama personally addressing the case with Hun Sen, the appeal court changed his sentence to five years suspended.

Under the new law, such lobbying work could result in the deregistration of an NGO, which would make it illegal, and see the arrest of NGO staff and civil society groups, critics said.

The government, Human Rights Watch’s Mr Robertson said, would use that power “to weed out those NGOS that work on human rights and support communities that have been disadvantaged by the government”.

Three more laws, which Global Witness described as “an all-out attack on freedoms”, also haven’t been shared with the public. Drafts, however, have been leaked and have led to immediate criticism from human rights groups.

The draft trade union law, for instance, is again defined by vague and broad language that leaves many loopholes and much room for interpretation.

According to the draft, anyone who does not ensure “employment security and national development” is subject to a heavy fine. The International Labour Organisation, and arm of the UN, has tried to advise the government on the law, but said its input had been ignored.

Under the cyber-crime law, any online communication can lead to criminal convictions, including a post or private chat on Facebook or in an email deemed to be “undermining the integrity of the government”.

To monitor Cambodian citizens’ online activity, a separate law on telecommunications is on the way that would give the government the power to access all online communications and to force internet providers to hand over their customer’s personal information and communication logs.

The NGO law is set to be the first one to be passed, Naly Pilorge said.

“Unfortunately, the government is pushing forward. There are laws that have been passed within three days, so we think that maybe it will take another week,” she said.

Experts believe there are about 3,500 non-government organisations in Cambodia, including an unknown number of dormant and defunct organisations. If the figure is correct, that would make Cambodia the country with the largest amount of aid groups worldwide after Rwanda. The government’s own estimates are even higher: 5,000 NGOs, including 411 international organisations which have already registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Getting an understanding of what the remaining, unregistered NGOs are up to is the intention of the law, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said.

“Do we need all of them? Maybe. But sometimes they act like a church, sometimes like the government, sometimes like the opposition. We only need the NGOs who want to be our partners," he said, adding that not all NGOs were legitimate NGOs.

Many NGOs are set up simply to avoid taxes, but are in fact run as businesses, or fail to comply with international standards. Bribes, disappearing funds and nepotism are common.

Making a stand: A Cambodian activist known locally as ‘Mommy’ cries at a protest in Phnom Penh aimed at freeing activists who worked with NGOs.

Over the years, the aid industry has seen numerous scandals, from bribes to government officials in exchange for aid contracts to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children in so-called orphanages. Last year, the sector was dealt a heavy blow when a scandal erupted around one of its most visible activists, Somaly Mam.

Somaly Mam, who wrote in her biography that she was sold to a brothel as a child, had risen to be an international anti-sex-trafficking idol. She appeared at events with Hollywood stars like Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan. CNN called her a “hero”, and Time listed her among the world’s 100 most influential people in 2009.

Yet investigations by the Cambodia Daily and later Newsweek found she had coached trafficked girls to lie about their experiences to make their stories sound even more horrific, that she lied about her own biography and had given false testimony in front of the UN Security Council, as well as allocated unusually high salaries to herself and her family.

Sophal Ear, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said better oversight is needed, citing Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, in which 4% of Cambodians found NGOs to be “corrupt or very corrupt”.

“Quantity does not substitute for quality. You could do much more without everybody riding around in an SUV acting like a minor government minister when many of them are running NGOs like for-profits that don’t pay taxes. You even have government officials running NGOs. It’s their ‘business’, and when the business goes belly-up, they take all the leftovers home,” said Mr Ear, who is an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Naly Pilorge acknowledged there were dubious NGOs, but pointed to the achievements of the majority, including the building of community wells to treating HIV/Aids to buying seeds for farmers who lost their crops in flooding. The new law, however, would not help to create more accountability, but could jeopardise the support of the international community, she said.

While the government’s budget for 2015 stands at US$3.8 billion (about 128 billion baht), the country receives about $1 billion in aid annually.

“Everyone who is working properly in development has to do some advocacy to some point. If that can’t take place any longer, no one will be able to operate properly, donors will leave,” Naly Pilorge said.

Mr Robertson feared the wider impact the passing of the law could have across the region. Thailand and Laos, he said, were already moving towards harsher legislation that could see increased crackdowns on NGOs and civil society

“My experience has been when it comes to Asean countries, rights-repressing bad ideas spread very quickly between governments — so if Cambodia passes this legislation, we may see more copycats in other countries,” he said. n

About the author

Writer: Denise Hruby