Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s NGO Blues

The Cambodian government’s plan to require that NGOs be registered is just an excuse to stifle legitimate protests, activists say.

By Simon Roughneen for

‘This isn’t right at all’, says Mr Ponlok, owner of a waterfront cafe at Boeung Kok Lake in Phnom Penh. ‘People are being forced out and the compensation is way too small’.

Lakeside residents are being driven from their homes as developers try to fill the landmark lake in Cambodia's capital with earth and sand, prior to turning it into a residential and shopping complex. In deal signed between Shukaku Inc. and the Cambodian government, a 99-year lease to the 103-hectare lake site was granted to the developers, a location that sits under the noses of the nearby British and French Embassies.

The lake is now about one-third of its former size, wafting a lingering odour from the pollution and ubiquitous rubbish strewn along the narrowing lakeshore. In Phnom Penh’s overcast and breezeless humidity, the smell wraps itself round the visitor like an unseen—and certainly unwanted—shroud.

Maybe half of the lakeside residents have already been evicted, and the 2,000 or so families still there have been given a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $8,500 to vacate their homes and properties.

Land rights are a complex and controversial issue in Cambodia, where under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, cities were emptied as part of a forced ruralisation scheme. The regime nationalised all private property and gutted ownership records. In a bid to settle the confusion and laythe bedrock for some sort of property rights and legal framework for ownership, a 2001 law said that people who could prove five years of continuous occupancy could apply to formally own the land, but that does not seem to apply to the lakeside residents. 

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NGOs based in Cambodia have played a crucial role so far in lobbying for the lakeside residents’ rights. However, the Cambodian government has tabled a new NGO law that threatens to undermine the independence of organisations and make it much more difficult for voluntary associations to be formed in the country. This in turn will hamper citizens from taking action against perceived rights violations, activists say.

According to Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, there are many technical problems with the law. ‘Key provisions are vague and open to arbitrary interpretation,’ she says. ‘In many circumstances, the government has carte blanche to shut organizations down without appeal.’

The complex and mandatory registration process will close many organisations, and the law is in breach of Cambodia’s Constitution and its obligations under international treaties, according to LICADHO. Overall, there are around 3,000 NGOs operating in Cambodia, ranging from international brands such as Oxfam to village level organizations. 

The government for its part says that the new NGO law will ‘promote the practice of rights and the freedoms of Khmer citizens in registering associations or domestic non-government organizations in order to jointly protect lawful persons and public interests.’ According to the Cambodian government, the law will make it easier for Cambodians to form associations and NGOs. But according to an unofficial translation of the second draft of the law, it puts a series of bureaucratic fences in the way that many of the smaller, rural-based localised organisations may have trouble clearing.

The proposed NGO law appears to be part of a package of measures being drawn up by the government to minimise the possibility of large-scale organisations emerging or protests taking place. A draft trade union law has been criticised by union leaders who say that they were ignored throughout the drafting process. To critics, the law would allow the government to stop protests, jail leaders, break up unions and prevent new bodies from forming.

A second draft of the law was supposedly discussed by the government and some NGOs last week, but this was widely dismissed as a charade. The second draft was released by the government on March 25, but gave only four days for NGOs to prepare for the ensuing consultation. Ou Virak, President of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, says such a meeting ‘to “finalize” the draft doesn’t constitute meaningful consultation.’ The organisation fears that the meeting will be spun as NGO approval of the process and the draft law.

The International Center for Non-Profit Law, which offers technical assistance to governments and organisations involved in drafting legal frameworks for NGOs, says that the proposed NGO law doesn’t meet international standards and contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Cambodia has ratified.

The latest version of the NGO law outlines what looks set to be a time-consuming and unwieldy registration process, open to interpretation and veto by officials, meaning it’s possible that citizens affected by new land grabs in Cambodia won’t have the right to organise themselves in time to properly respond. Already, 37 community activists are in prison due to peaceful protests against land grabs in rural areas, while others are regularly threatened or worse

David Pred is Executive Director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, a group that has been assisting the lakeside residents. He says that the proposed law ‘will stifle the grassroots advocacy networks that have emerged in recent years to defend community land and natural resource rights.’  As well as making it much more difficult to set such groups up, Mr Pred says that the burdensome reporting requirements ‘would pose significant security risks for the individuals named in the registration documents.’

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Back at the lakeside, Ponlok says NGOs working for the rights of Boeung Kak residents have done a good job, but he isn’t optimistic that they can ultimately save his business or residence. ‘We are going to lose anyway in the end,’ he says. ‘I might move to somewhere else in the country. We are already looking at what we can do afterwards.’ His words tail off, and he turns his head towards the lake as if in a final glance goodbye.