In a 2017 survey, a majority of Cambodian civil society organizations (CSOs) polled said they face no legal barriers to seeking and receive funding from foreign or domestic sources.[i] Some activists point out, however, that the government stigmatizes CSOs that receive funding from abroad; restricts the nature of the activities CSOs may conduct; and inconsistently applies the law to harass and/or dissolve without due process CSOs it feels oppose the government or the Cambodian People’s Party.
Cambodia’s Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO) of 2015 allows the government to suspend or dissolve organizations for violating “political neutrality,” which is broadly defined in the LANGO and can be used to limit dissent. The LANGO requires all domestic and international associations to register with the government, which has broad discretion to grant or deny applications for registration. Similarly, CSOs must receive governmental approval to implement various activities. CSOs report that regulations governing these processes are complex and are used to prevent organizations from conducting programs the government finds threatening.
Activists report that CSOs involved in advocacy, legal rights, and human rights are considered by the government to be unwanted opposition.[ii] Their activities are monitored and restricted by the government, which increasingly uses tactics to intimidate certain CSOs and the communities in which they work. For example, in April 2017, the Ministry of the Interior accused the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) of breaching the LANGO, likely in retaliation for CITA’s criticism of the government. Civil society activists warn that accusations such as this indicate the government’s willingness to crackdown on independent voices ahead of the 2018 general elections.
Despite challenges to freedom of association in Cambodia, civil society has remains resilient by establishing a common understanding of the restrictions it faces and developing public messages to protect its rights. CSOs stress that the Cambodian Constitution guarantees Cambodian citizens the right to form and take part in associations, including accessing donor funding. They conduct research on restrictive regulations, and publish, joint letters, facts sheets and policy briefs to educate the general public, the diplomatic community, and the government about the negative impact they have. Their research highlights a number of international norms that protect freedom of assembly, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee’s Communication No. 1274/2004, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Human Rights Council’s resolutions 22/6 and 27/31, and the Special Rapporteur
CSOs report that European Union delegates to Cambodia and many United Nations bodies are among their most vocal supporters, regularly issuing statements in support of civil society. CSOs have also developed partnerships with international organizations such as the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and the Solidarity Center, which have trained Cambodian CSOs to monitor the implementation of LANGO and advocate for CSOs’ right to operate independently. Currently, CSOs are focused on protecting their rights through strong relationships with these influencers as an alternative to “naming and shaming” government agencies and officials, which they feel would be counterproductive in the Cambodian context.
In addition to advocacy, CSOs avoid drawing unwanted scrutiny from the government by making their best effort to comply with the LANGO’s burdensome requirements. Many CSOs at the provincial levels also conduct regular meetings with local authorities to discuss their activities and potential areas of cooperation.
International treaties to which Cambodia is a party: