Cambodia: Proposed NGO law will threaten advocates from minority, indigenous communities

A controversial proposed law on non-governmental organizations in Cambodia could have devastating consequences for advocates from minority and Indigenous communities, a local human rights groups says.

Advocates say Cambodia will use its proposed Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations to silence its critics and shut down NGOs that refuse to toe the government line.

The widely criticized law would make it mandatory for NGOs to officially register with the government and to submit annual reports with detailed budgets.

The country's smallest NGOs and self-advcoacy groups are unlikely to have the means to meet such strict reporting regulations, critics say. 

Advocates from minority and Indigenous communities in Cambodia often live in remote provinces and lack legal representation. The NGO law, then, could pose the biggest problems to people from these communities, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR).

"Minority groups face discrimination in that the law requires associations to follow certain procedures and administrative requirements which may prove difficult for them due to natural circumstances," Virak said. "Minority groups are less likely to be in a position where they are sufficiently aware of the specific requirements of the law, making them more vulnerable to being harassed by way of litigation."

The proposed law would also give the government the right to deny NGO status to applicants without offering reasons.

Critics say Cambodian authorities have shown in recent month how it will use the law to sanction critics of government policy.

In August, Cambodia's Ministry of Interior suspended a local housing rights NGO, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), claiming the organization had not "modified its leadership structure" or revised its statue.

Rights groups, however, pointed out that the NGO had been advocating for a group of villagers located along a railway line that is being redeveloped. STT had been particularly effective in gathering hard data on the affected communities.

Authorities later advised two additional advocacy NGOs to "readjust" their work.

Local authorities have also accused NGOs of "inciting" citizens to oppose the government. In August, local authorities interrupted rights training sessions staged by CCHR. The NGO was giving rights training to communities around the Prey Lang forest area, home to an estimated 200,000 people and, according to CCHR, a large proportion of Cambodia's indigenous population. The government has been doling out parts of Prey Lang as land concessions to business interests. Later that month, more than 100 activists, many from the indigenous Kuy communities, were arrested when they staged a protest in Phnom Penh.

"This episode provides further evidence of the tendency of authorities to stifle civil society's and communities' efforts to highlight issues that have a negative impact upon their lives," CCHR said in a briefing paper about the proposed NGO law this month.

The government is believed to still be reviewing the law. It has already written at least three draft versions of the legislation.

Photo: People from Cambodia's Prey Lang community protest in Phnom Penh in August. Authorities later arrested at least 100 peaceful protesters.

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Date: 18/10/2011




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