All-out Attack on Cambodian Democracy

Phnom Penh has been abuzz with protests this week, which is not unusual for the Cambodian capital. Whether it's farmers taking to the streets in protest against state-sponsored land grabs or garment workers pushing for a living wage, Cambodia's vibrant civil society continues to be a thorn in the side of the country's long-serving kleptocratic government. But all this could be about to change. A repressive law which threatens to silence all government critics is in danger of passing on Monday.

This should be setting off major alarm bells for foreign governments who still contribute more than a third of Cambodia's budget. In the face of rampant corruption from government elites, these donors rely on civil society groups to deliver many of their promises to alleviate poverty and promote human rights and social justice. Surprisingly though, the international community has been largely silent on one of the biggest threats to democracy in Cambodia's recent history.

The Law on Associations and NGOs -- or LANGO as it is commonly known -- would grant the government powers to crack down on any activities it considers might "jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture and traditions of the Cambodian national society." It also requires all citizen groups to register with the government. Leaders of those that don't could face jail terms or be blacklisted from ever starting another organization.

This law would give the government total control over civil society, allowing them to pick and choose which groups can operate, close down critical organizations and lock up anyone they consider a trouble maker. Even small informal gatherings could be criminalized. Considering gathering some people together to discuss homelessness in your neighborhood, for example, or to raise money for cancer research? Your group would have to register with the Ministry of Interior or potentially face prosecution.

The LANGO is the first of four repressive laws in the pipeline designed to crush a movement for change that began building around Cambodia's 2013 election, when garment workers, land and forest defenders, monks and the urban youth came together to challenge the current government. Planned for the near future is an equally repressive Trade Union Law. These laws will inevitably drive activism online, but the government is one step ahead. A Cybercrime law, due for 2016 again contains vague provisions which criminalise any online communications "undermining the integrity of government agencies". And for emails there's the planned Telecomms law that would grant powers to the government to monitor all online communication and demand information on critics from internet providers.

In true style, Cambodian groups aren't taking this lying down and have been out marching every day this week. On Monday, forty international NGOs - including Global Witness - wrote the latest in a series of public letters against the LANGO, this time directly to the Prime Minister, warning of the devastating impacts the law will have on Cambodian society and urging for it to be dropped. Cambodia's opposition party has also spoken out strongly against it.

The U.S. government -- Cambodia's biggest aid donor -- is a critic too, deeming the law 'unnecessary' with US Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd warning that it could seriously impact on Cambodia's image as a destination for foreign investment. United Nations human rights expert Maina Kiai has also spoken out, saying the law "constitutes a clear infringement of the right to freedom of association."

Other governments have been slow to follow suit. The European Commission and EU Member States, who in 2014 pledged to provide $1.8 billion in assistance to Cambodia over five years, have so far been mute on the issue opting for quiet diplomacy instead.

This is deeply concerning. Cambodia ranks in 157th place out of 175 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, and the further closing of democratic space could increase the ease with which corrupt elites squirrel away public funds - including much-needed aid money meant for health, education and the fight against poverty.

Donors like the EU must publically condemn the LANGO and call for it to be dropped. If they allow it to pass on their watch they'll be doing a great disservice to their own taxpayers but, more importantly, to Cambodia's people, who risk their freedom and even lives in their struggle for democratic freedoms and social justice.

Patrick Alley founded the London-based NGO Global Witness twenty years ago. The organisation focusses on ending the links between natural resources, conflict and corruption and has worked in Cambodia since 1995.