19 July 2015
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The National Assembly passed the controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) last Monday amid protests from local and international civil society groups (CSOs), a boycott from the opposition party, and mounting international pressures. What happens next?
Some local and international CSOs have protested against LANGO by calling it “repressive and unnecessary.” The US and EU have raised concerns that LANGO will restrict the freedom and rights of CSOs and that they will closely monitor the implementation of the law and its impacts on CSOs.
Lack of inclusive and open dialogue and consultation is the root cause of misperception, misunderstanding, and distrust between the government and some CSOs. The ongoing debates on LANGO clearly reflect deep distrust between the government and CSOs, particularly those working on human rights, democracy, social justice, and environmental protection.
Time for a New Mind Set
Perhaps a new thinking and innovative approach is required to bridge the gap of misperception and rebuild trust between the government and CSOs. To be realistic, CSOs should find ways to closely work with the government to ensure that the implementation of the law will not restrict their freedom and rights.
The government has recognized the crucial role of CSOs in promoting socio-economic development.
CSOs are the agents of development. The government claims that LANGO is created to protect the rights, freedom, and interests of CSOs. Accountable and transparent CSOs will surely benefit from LANGO.
But it would be a serious democratic setback and a disaster for Cambodians if the government fails to keep its promise, honor its commitment, and starts to impose strict restrictions on the activities of CSOs, implementing red tape on registration, and suppressing those activists who raise dissenting or critical views.
An open, inclusive and substantive dialogue is vital to build trust and confidence between the government and CSOs. An institutionalized Government-CSO forum should be created to build cooperation and partnership to address and resolve issues Cambodia is facing.
The main role of CSOs is to ensure the government’s accountability and transparency. So, it needs to build relationships with the government in order to realize its mission. The relationships may be cooperative, or sometimes confrontational.
The government needs to broadly view CSOs as a partner or mirror, not an enemy or a threat. To strengthen state institutions, critical and honest views are needed. Being open to diverse views helps the government to develop a relevant and inclusive policy agenda.
Ambiguity and Clarification
It is necessary to clarify some ambiguous words and phrases under LANGO such as national security and public security, and define the scope of activities that are considered or justified as the threat to national security and public order.
LANGO is a living document so it can be amended if necessary. But for the cooperation to be fruitful, trust and confidence has to be built between the government and CSOs.
More support is needed to strengthen the governance and leadership of CSOs. The government and international development partners should develop more capacity-building programs to support local CSOs, especially the community-based and grassroots CSOs.