Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Cambodia’s non-governmental organizations that they will be shut down if they fail to report their financial statements to the government, speaking at a meeting with workers in Kandal province on Saturday.
“I would like to send a message to friends and non-governmental organizations to let them know that the royal government’s stance is not to withdraw from the financial statements [requirement],” Hun Sen said “If you do not report, the government will take measures to dissolve those organizations.”
He said he had discussed with Interior Minister Sar Kheng the timeline for when NGOs that have failed to submit their financial statements will be dissolved.
“Do not say that Hun Sen has oppressed [you] before the elections,” he said. “You have bad political intentions if you establish a non-governmental organization to destroy the government. It can’t [work].”
The prime minister’s comments came just days after the Interior Ministry ordered the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, an NGO in Siem Reap, to cancel a planned conference. The ministry claimed the NGO’s meeting, focused on “current humanitarian efforts,” would violate the ASEAN Charter.
Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) requires foreign and domestic NGOs to submit documents related to financial donors as well as annual financial reports. LANGO passed in 2015, with human rights groups criticizing the law for restricting civil society activities and human rights defenders.
Prak Sam Oeun, director general at the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Administration, declined to comment for this story.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn, who oversees foreign NGOs, could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
CIVICUS, an international group advocating for civil society organizations, said in a statement that the organization was “extremely disturbed” by Hun Sen’s recent threats on NGOs.
“Human rights groups had warned from the start that the LANGO empowers the authorities to shut down organizations or deny them registration based on vaguely, undefined, and broadly formulated concepts,” CIVICUS Asia Pacific Researcher Josef Benedict said in an email.
“We are clearly seeing how the law is now being politically used ahead of elections to create a chilling environment for NGO and activists,” he said.
In February, CIVICUS added Cambodia to its watchlist for its “rapid decline in civic freedoms,” and the organization currently classifies the country as “repressed.”
The Interior Ministry’s Secretary of State Bun Honn said that LANGO doesn’t restrict NGOs as critics have claimed, and that filing the financial reports is not complicated.
“They just raise [the issue] that we have restricted them. It’s not a restriction unless we are not allowing them to do anything,” Honn said. “Only civil organizations that have carried out their work under a political agenda have a problem.”
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at the Cambodian human rights NGO ADHOC, said that organizations who have registered with the Interior Ministry regularly report their financial statements to comply with LANGO. He declined to comment further on the prime minister’s recent statements.
Am Sam Ath, operations director at the NGO LICADHO, said he thinks Hun Sen’s speech will result in NGOs pushing again for the passage of amendments to LANGO, something civil society advocates have urged the government to do for years.
He also echoed Senkaruna, saying he was not surprised by Hun Sen’s comments because submitting financial reports is a known requirement by his organization.
“For LICADHO, as an organization, we do not avoid sending reports of [financial statements],” he said.
But, he noted that NGOs like LICADHO are dealing with restrictions from the government.
“They [authorities] have monitored the activity of [non-governmental] organizations, and there are some restrictions for assembly and training,” he said.
Additional reporting by Leila Goldstein.