PHNOM PENH - A United States envoy on Tuesday voiced concern that a controversial law set to be passed by the Cambodian cabinet could smother the "crucial work" of non-governmental organisations in the impoverished kingdom.
Cambodia is home to hundreds of NGOs and civil society groups who provide key services and support across one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen has long expressed hostility towards NGOs, specifically those that defend human rights in a nation where land grabbing and corruption are rampant.
The draft is reported to be the same as an aborted 2011 law, which gave the government sweeping powers to curb the work of NGOs, including by closing them by court order or refusing them registration.
"I am concerned that the law... has not been shared with the public so that civil society and the citizens of Cambodia can understand the impact will have on them," Scott Busby, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told reporters.
"I'm concerned the law will impose restrictions and burdens on NGOs that will make it difficult or even impossible to do their crucial work." Busby said he raised his concerns with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong during his visit to the capital, Phnom Penh.
Rights groups fear the new bill, which was revived last month, covers NGOs and all civil society groups and will severely restrict the work of community groups and activists.
It is expected to go before the cabinet later this week for ratification and then will then face a vote in the National Assembly which is dominated by Hun Sen's party.
Civil society groups have urged the government to consult with them for the final version of the draft is put before the assembly.
But Hun Sen has defended the bill by saying there has been ample time for consultation over a law that aims to will protect them, as much as regulate their work.
"The government will approve this law in coming days and we will send it to the National Assembly," he told reporters Tuesday.
"Other countries have this law, why do they object to Cambodia making this law?" he said urging NGOs and civil society group "not to worry".
"This law will protect you, this law will support and open your activity and ensure you operate under a legal basis," he added.
Tek Vannara, executive director of NGO Forum, said the civil society groups cannot properly consider the impact the law will have on their work without knowing its contents.
"The government should give enough time for consultation," he added.