24 July, 2015
Two years ago, the ruling party in Cambodia suffered a loss in support during the country's last election. Critics say Cambodian lawmakers are now trying to push through laws to prevent that from happening again.
In the past year, parliament has passed laws for judges and the courts, elections and non-governmental organizations. More measures targeting labor unions and the Internet are to be debated soon.
Observers fear that the ruling party will misuse three laws approved by parliament in recent weeks. They think the government will use these laws -- and others being considered -- to silence opponents and strengthen its power before the next elections, in 2018.
The new laws are the ruling party's reaction to the results of the 2013 elections. The opposition came close to winning that vote.
On Friday, Cambodia's Senate approved a disputed law affecting non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. The law gives the government powers to close any non-profit organization or group that fails to meet registration and reporting requirements. The law also gives Cambodian officials the power to close any group that endangers peace, national unity or culture. The government claims the law will prevent terrorism and financial wrongdoing.
The European Union, the United Nations and the United States have opposed the law. And hundreds of aid groups called for its cancellation. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Senate to protest the law. Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote. Now the law will be sent to Cambodia's king for final approval.
Ou Virak is a political expert. He created a research group called The Future Forum. He says many new bills are being approved because Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to guarantee his party will win the 2018 elections.
"The government has made it clear that they are upset with the NGOs, and particularly NGOs who have been political, who have been talking about the election results, who have been complaining about the lack of free and fair elections in the past, particularly the protests that ensued (after) the 2013 disputed election."
Ou Virak says Cambodia's ruling party believes many non-governmental organizations support the opposition. Many of these groups receive money from foreign governments. Mr. Ou Virak says the prime minister fears they will support a rebellion against his government. Mr. Hun Sen has ruled the country for more than 25 years.
Another law would restrict the activities of Cambodian trade unions. Many unions support the opposition.
The government also wants to establish limits on the Internet. Observers are not surprised that it wants to do so, because social media helped the opposition in the 2013 elections. The government says a law limiting use of the Internet would help in the fight against computer crimes.
Mr. Ou Virak says young people in Cambodia use social media sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, to show their anger with the government. He says that is why the government will seek to restrict them.
"I wouldn't be surprised if, if internet freedom, or cybercrime, will be used as a scapegoat to, to try to reel in another medium that could undermine the grip of the ruling party -- and that is the internet."
The government says people should not worry about the new laws. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said Cambodians should not be afraid that the government will use the laws to suppress opposition. But the government controls judges in the country. And it has often used laws to abuse opponents.
For example, this month the city court in the capital Phnom Penh sentenced 11 opposition supporters to up to 20 years in prison just because they were at a protest in the capital last year that became violent. Rights groups strongly criticized the court's decision.
I'm Christopher Jones-Cruise.
Neou Vannarin and Robert Carmichael reported this story from Phnom Penh. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Words in The News
upset with – v. (phrasal) to be displeased with; to be troubled by
ensue – v. to take place as a result of; to take place later than something else
scapegoat – n. someone who takes the blame for something but is not responsible for it
reel in – v. to bring in; to attract
medium – n. a means of communication; plural: media
undermine – v. to make something less effective
We want to hear from you. Write your opinions in the comments section.