Scores of activists protested outside Cambodia's parliament Tuesday against a controversial draft law regulating non-governmental organizations, which they say could restrict their ability to work in the impoverished kingdom.
Around 100 demonstrators representing a range of local and international NGOs called on lawmakers not to approve the controversial legislation, which was passed in draft form by the cabinet of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month.
Cambodia is home to thousands of NGOs and civil society groups who provide key services and support in one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries.
The draft law, obtained by AFP, says all domestic and international NGOs must report their activities and finances to the government.
Failure to comply could result in fines, legal action, bans and "other criminal punishment".
The draft also says NGOs could be disbanded if their activities "jeopardize peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of Cambodian society".
The legislation is currently awaiting parliamentary approval although no date has yet been set for a vote. Hun Sen's ruling party dominates parliament, which rarely votes against the cabinet.
Rights groups -- who say they were not consulted over the most recent draft -- as well as UN officials and foreign diplomats, including from the US, have expressed serious concerns over the draft legislation.
"The civil society groups will lose their independence and they also face criminal punishment... this is very serious problem," Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, who also joined the protest, told reporters.
"When the law is passed, the associations or NGOs will be directly controlled" by the government, he added.
Thirty-two international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also urged Cambodia to withdraw the draft law.
"The draft... appears designed to restrict the legitimate activities of civil society and human rights defenders in violation of the right to freedom of association," the group said in a letter dated June 22.
About 5,000 NGOs and associations have been registered in Cambodia since 1993, according to the government.
Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-ruling leaders, marked three decades in power in January. He is regularly criticized by campaigners for stamping out dissent. (iik)