Foreign NGOs in Cambodia say they are treading more carefully since a stricter registration regime was introduced last year under a new NGO law, with some claiming that it has been used as a threat to constrict their activities.
More than 40 NGOs, including 22 foreign organizations, were surveyed by reporters about the impacts of the new Law on Associations and NGOs, or Lango, which was enacted in August last year despite widespread concern that it would pressure organizations to sanitize their activities in order to continue operating in the country.
The law has been criticized for giving apparently arbitrary powers to the ministries of foreign affairs and interior to deny the registrations of NGOs at their discretion, or revoke them if organizations are deemed to have threatened stability or failed to maintain political neutrality.
About half of the foreign NGOs contacted in the past two weeks either declined to discuss the status of their registrations under the new law or did not respond to questions. Some of those that declined said they did not want to be mentioned in an article on the issue, citing sensitivities in their registrations and a desire to “lay low.”
Of those who responded, most said they had no issues with their registrations or the new system.
However, when assured of anonymity, others told of new pressures, including authorities citing the law as an apparent warning after the organizations participated in joint statements critical of the government, worked with partners branded as “independent,” or were otherwise seen as stepping out of line.
One foreign organization involved in poverty alleviation said it had recently been issued a notice from a government ministry reminding it that it must “fully comply with LANGO.”
“We’ve felt pressure on our work,” a spokesperson for the organization said.
“We and other INGOs have experienced threats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” the spokesperson said, using an abbreviation for international NGOs. “We are concerned that this law has constricted and will further constrict our operations.”
Another foreign NGO, which works to improve rural livelihoods, said it had stopped using email for some of its correspondence amid heightened scrutiny of its work, which increased after it spoke out against the human rights situation in Cambodia in a joint statement earlier this year.
It was contacted by the Interior Ministry after the statement was released and pressed for contact details, a spokesperson said.
“We feel that we need to consider more carefully the wordings when cooperating with government officials and making written documents like statements,” the spokesperson said.
The organization has also had to be more cautious when “choosing cooperation partners, because media or organizations with the word ‘independent’ seem sensitive to the government.”
Government officials have even visited the organization’s office, supposedly to gather information about them, the spokesperson said.
Another organization, which works with youth, said that its registration procedure had been inexplicably dragged out. “We had a challenge with the long process,” a spokesperson said.
For many organizations, the process of registering with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was smooth and took as little as three months, they said.
However, Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, which is registered as a domestic NGO, said some international organizations were still facing difficulties in registering with the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Chak Sopheap, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said there were several obstacles and reasons for concern. The center is monitoring the experiences of foreign NGOs working to register under the new protocol.
The process involves receiving a letter of support from a Cambodian public authority, then submitting an application for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Foreign Affairs Ministry for up to three-year terms.
“This process has also thrown up a few problems,” Ms. Sopheap said in an email. “Specifically, the requirement to seek a letter of support from the relevant public authority gives significant discretion to specific ministries and/or provincial departments.”
“This requirement can easily be affected by corruption, and it compromises the independence of the process, with organizations conducting sensitive work potentially less likely to receive support,” she added.
In its annual report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in August, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia also said it was “tracking cases” in which Lango was invoked by authorities to restrict the activities of NGOs “working on issues deemed sensitive.”
The office, which itself finally signed a new MoU this month under threat of being shut down, has declined to make its findings public.
The director of an international NGO that works on issues particularly sensitive to the government declined to be quoted but said it was still waiting for approval. Although the delays so far had been bureaucratic in nature, the new law gave the government the tools to easily shut it down, the director noted.
The organization nevertheless planned to press ahead with its activities even without an MoU, the director said, adding that the government officials it had been working with had been cooperative so far.
Under Lango, it is not only organizations but also their employees who are open to greater potential punitive action. “Any foreigner working for a foreign association” that works without registration can be deported, the law says.
“Competent authorities shall take measures to immediately stop any foreign association or nongovernmental organization that conducts activities without registration,” it states.
Local NGOs’ registrations follow a separate process involving the Interior Ministry, and though there are reports of their workers facing threats from authorities who have cited Lango, particularly in rural provinces and usually erroneously, their registrations appear to have been less of an issue.
Ms. Sopheap of the human rights center said authorities had made note of some unregistered local organizations, but had yet to act on any of them.
“Other government actors have publicly threatened Article 24 against critical human rights organizations,” she said, referring to Lango’s requirement that NGOs “maintain their neutrality toward political parties.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he had no information about Lango being used to pressure organizations or about any problems with the registrations of foreign NGOs.