A controversial law passed in Cambodia today could signal an end to the democratic freedoms that have allowed Cambodian citizens to voice any criticism of their famously corrupt government, Global Witness warns. Cambodian parliament today voted unanimously in support of the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), that will give the government far-reaching powers over civil society, allowing it to shut down or ban any organisation that speaks out against its policies. All 55 members of the opposition, Cambodia’s National Rescue Party, boycotted today’s vote in protest over the law, which they have called unconstitutional. Global Witness is calling on the Cambodian government to revoke it.
Cambodian groups have been marching against the LANGO for weeks, demanding it be dropped. Joining their opposition, UN human rights expert Maina Kiai described it as “a clear infringement of the right to freedom of association.” The US has also spoken out against it, with the Ambassador to Cambodia, William Todd, warning that it could seriously deter foreign investment. On Friday, the European Parliament followed suit, issuing a resolution calling for the law’s withdrawal. But other donor governments, such as Japan and EU member states, have shied away from condemning the law publically. This despite the fact that foreign governments provide around a third of Cambodia’s annual budget.
Under the LANGO, Cambodia’s government can crack down on any activities that might ‘jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture and traditions of the Cambodian national society’. It requires all civil society groups, however informal, to register with the Ministry of Interior, allowing the government complete discretion over which organisations are allowed to exist.
“We are calling for the law to be scrapped,” said Global Witness campaigner Josie Cohen. “Cambodians have struggled for decades to keep their notoriously corrupt government in check, acting as important watchdogs in the face of a kleptocratic elite that prioritises its own personal enrichment over the public good. This new law will make it almost impossible for Cambodian civil society to hold their leaders to account. The government can now ban any group that voices its criticism too loudly.”
The LANGO is the first of four planned laws that threaten to cut deeply into Cambodian democratic space. An equally repressive Trade Union Law is already in the pipeline, followed shortly by proposed Cyber Crime and Telecomms Laws, which would criminalise online criticism of the government and allow the authorities to monitor all online communication.
“With Cambodian civil society no longer able to organise on- or offline, opposition to the government and its policies will become almost impossible, guaranteeing them an easy win in the upcoming 2017 and 2018 elections”, added Cohen. “We could be witnessing the end of more than two decades of relative freedom in Cambodia.”
Following today’s National Assembly vote the LANGO will have to be passed by the Senate and ultimately the King before becoming law, steps that have traditionally been little more than a rubber stamp. Cambodian groups are still holding out hope, however.
“There is still time for foreign governments, which provide Cambodia with millions of dollars in aid, to use their influence to push for the law to be dropped,” said Cohen. “Without civil society watching over their government, donor money risks being syphoned off by corrupt elites instead of ending up where it should - helping alleviate poverty and securing a better future for Cambodia’s citizens.”
Alice Harrison, Campaigner, Land Team