It is worth examining how grassroots organizations and NGOs are faring in Cambodia three months after the approval of the controversial law on associations and non-government organizations (LANGO) by the Cambodian National Assembly.
A little background information on the LANGO: The controversial law on associations and non-government organizations (LANGO) was drafted in a closed and flawed process; it was approved by the National Assembly on the 13th ofJuly 2015. All 68 members of the Cambodian Parliament who voted in favor of the bill came from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The 5,000+ local and international NGOs that are presently operating in Cambodia will now be forced to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution, and shutdowns.
Early on, I have felt that the law’s implementation will have serious implication on how informal and community-based groups operates – meaning – most-affected will be formations and organizations that are working at the grassroots level, in the communities – such as the Boeung Kak community and the Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD). This law certainly contradicts with the right to form informal associations, community groups, especially at the grassroots level. According to Article 9 of the LANGO: “….Domestic association and non-governmental organization which is not registered is not allowed conduct any activities in the Kingdom of Cambodia.” This provision in the article compels all informal groups, communities, and unions to register with the Ministry of Interior (MOI). This limit citizenship right, especially the right to assembly, freedom of speech – including the right to be critical about some activities of the government.
In Article 37, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation could terminate validity of MoU, in case that any associations or foreign non-governmental organizations does not comply with the MoU signed with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation or in case that the associations or foreign nongovernmental organizations conduct activity which jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society, plus other criminal punishment.” For me, this provision has a very broad meaning and subject to different interpretations.
My current organization, the youth organization Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN), did not register with the government. CYWEN is an informal group representing the young women’s voice. LANGO has a huge impact on CYWEN and other coalitions and networks, including youth networks. It also causes a lot of difficulties. If we plan to register, the procedures and the requirements are numerous. CYWEN is only a voluntary network of young women so the requirement to register as a legal institution is a big challenge and one that we need to carefully consider.
I also asked the women working in NGOs and grassroots organizations how they view the LANGO and what, so far, have been its implications on them and their organizations. Here’s what they say:
Kunthea Chan, regional program coordinator of JASS Southeast Asia: “Cambodian women comprise 52% of the country’s population. With the implementation of this new law called LANGO, undoubtedly, it will cause further discrimination against women and violation of Cambodian women’s rights. Women continue to deal with the challenges of exercising freedom of expression in their daily life. These laws don’t address nor reflect the reality of women’s lives and critical work that civil society does. Apparently, it was created for the purpose of restricting in Cambodian’s freedom of association and expression. It is violating the rights of the people – both men and women – who are participating actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life. The law also has the potential to criminalize those activities. It will definitely have a negative impact on society.”
Mang Bora, staff of Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD): “This law should not have been enforced. It was approved even without consultation with NGOs, communities, and unions. I do not agree with it at all because it does not reflect the real needs of community people. They are now limiting our rights to work within the communities. There is now a long process of asking for permission when we engage people to join the fora, discussions, and meetings in the communities. We can be easily tagged as a criminal under this law because some of the provisions of this law are against our core values, mission, and vision.”
Kong Chantha, land rights activist, member of the Boeung Kak community: “This law took effect in our community immediately after it was passed. The authorities forced and warned Boeung Kak community to file the necessary documents and submit to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) in order to become a formal group or a legally-recognized entity. The Boeung Kak community has its own stand. We do not accept this law. We say “No!” to this law. The Cambodian government tends to use this to break our voice and power but we are not afraid at all. We do not accept this law.”
Though the National Assembly organized a half day “consultation” with civil society organizations (CSOs) on the 8th of July, very little adjustment has been made on the law. I think the consultation was just for show – so that other countries will see that the Cambodian government provided a space for all NGOs, unions, and community groups to air their position. CSOs tried hard and continually asked for a suspension of the law’s implementation and for the government to truly consult CSOs on this law. But so far our voices continue to be ignored by the government.
And while most of the NGOs asked for suspension and consultation on the law, grassroots groups (especially Boeung KaK community, informal networks, and unions) since the beginning opposed the law. They want neither suspension nor consultation. But after the government did not give much space for consultation, NGOs now have a common campaign with grassroots groups to say “No” to this law too. We in CYWEN joined street protests with other NGOs, unions, and communities a few times before and during the law’s passage by the Cambodian Parliament.
What are the next steps? Most of the NGOs, community groups, and informal associations continue to oppose this law. Freedom of speech is under threat. Being vocal and critical of the Cambodian government could land one in jail. Many people want the law to be revised and for the NGOs, associations, and the people to be consulted in a new process. Some want the law repealed entirely.
In so far as CYWEN is concerned, we continue to work to promote women’s rights. This may be totally against the Cambodian “traditional” culture. We consider it a milestone when we build women’s “power within” to speak out and claim our rights and access justice which is in stark contrast with what the Cambodian “Code of Conduct” – the Chbab Srey – taught women for generations. This is despite Cambodian traditions and so-called “draconian” laws such as the LANGO.