Opinion

Let's See 'NGO Law' for What It Is: a Muzzle on Dissenting Voices

Published on June 25, 2015

After much public discussion, and following your article, “CPP Lawmakers Press Ahead with NGO Law” (Cambodia Daily dated 24 June, 2015), LICADHO wishes to address a general misunderstanding of the draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO).

LANGO is not a simply an “NGO law” impacting a few hundred NGOs. The law’s mandatory registration provisions apply to any group of people who join together to pursue any common cause, no matter their purpose or level of organization. Given the political context in Cambodia, we view this as a concerted effort to stop grassroots and community based organizations in their tracks. No registration, no community based organizations, no voices.

LANGO’s threat cannot be understated. The law will give the government ultimate control over who can operate as citizens’ groups and community based organizations. If the authorities don’t like what you are doing, they will stop you, weaken your organization, and blacklist your leaders. These are not benign requirements to sign a register and provide some bank statements.

The real purpose of this law is to exercise control over groups of citizens who want to speak out.

LANGO will firmly establish the Ministry of the Interior as a gatekeeper, registering only those domestic NGOs and associations it deems fit and criminalizing the activities of all unregistered groups.

Even if an organization manages to register, significant dangers remain. LANGO requires all organizations except domestic Cambodian associations to remain politically neutral or risk being banned from the register. This constant axe hanging over the operations of certain citizens groups will see the Ministry of the Interior as judge, jury and executioner in deciding the fate of a group. Who is likely to speak out if it results in the government declaring them biased, halting operations and dissolving the organization?

In this new landscape of silence, the government and its proxy associations will have free rein.

The threat is not new and it’s not over yet. The latest draft of the law is simply one part of a larger, years-long push to control civil society and suppress critical voices. This push has accelerated since the controversial 2013 elections, which were a clear sign that the CPP’s dominance is slipping. New or proposed laws to regulate elections, trades unions and cybercrime are all part of the ruling party’s aggressive drive to rob the people of a voice and re-establish their grip over public discourse ahead of the next election.

Civil society is absolutely vital for democracy and legitimizes the democratic institutions we rely on. If LANGO passes, this will be wiped out in an instant, replaced by a bleak environment of unchallenged governance and its myriad consequences.

LANGO needs to be stopped. Don’t let Cambodia lose its voice.