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Cambodian Civil Society: Challenges and Prospects

Khmer Rouge Soldiers (Taekwonweirdo/Flickr)

Khmer Rouge Soldiers (Taekwonweirdo/Flickr)

Nick Platt

Thank you very much. Now I’d like to turn to Kao Kim Hourn who, by the way, is the newest member of the Asia Society’s International Council.

Kao Kim Hourn

Thank you, sir. Thank you very much Mr. President and of course it was also a great honor. Your Highness, President Nicholas Platt, ladies and gentlemen and friends, what I want to do is basically to take about 10 or 15 minutes and perhaps to complement what the Prince has already been stating, some of the issues that have been raised and maybe also to touch on some of the new key issues also that perhaps will provoke some of the thinking and maybe raise some questions. Thank you.

First, let me start by also continuing to underline what are called the achievements of the emergence and development of civil society in Cambodia. As of today, Cambodia has more than 1,000 civil-society organizations. This is according to the latest registration by the Ministry of the Interior. Of course, we have more than 700 NGOs, that is the local NGOs, plus the international NGOs. Now of course we also have to include, there are more than 80 trade unions. Also we have more than 50 media, newspapers. On top of that, of course, this is really, clearly an increasing plurality of actors in Cambodia. But I think it’s still in a stage where this development will continue to progress, because I think the quantity, of course, is very significant, but I think we have to also think about the quality of these organizations. It’s very important.

The other achievement I think we have to underline here is that the Cambodian government has to some extent already recognized the role of civil society in Cambodia. I think this is already--although we don’t have a law yet, but I think it’s increasingly, the public statement has been made by the Cambodian leaders. The other thing I think, clearly, particularly on the role of civil society in the promotions of human rights and the advancement of democracy. This has also been continually recognized by the international community. At the same time I think we see also that there is now increasingly more space for civil society actors to operate in Cambodia. And I think clearly this is really the key achievement.

Now when I say civil society in Cambodia, I think in the Cambodian context, because we have been doing a lot of workshops in the past two years we have organized more than 20 workshops in Cambodia, debated significantly at our institute. In fact, in late November and early December, we organized two national conferences on civil society. So, based on this, this is why we have some concrete information coming out. This is basically a few snapshots of achievements.

Now let me also underline the challenges that perhaps that continue to confront the civil society in Cambodia. One, of course, has been mentioned by His Royal Highness. It’s the legal framework. As of today, in Cambodia we don’t have law that facilitates--not so much managing, but facilitate the role of civil society organizations. I think without a legal framework it would be very difficult, particularly when NGOs or other civil society organizations get into trouble, then there’s no law protecting them. So the idea, of course, also is to ensure that the civil society organizations are not abusing their roles also. So I think the idea is very important that we need to have a legal framework in place in order to facilitate a constructive role in civil society. So I think that’s one critical challenge.

I think it’s already, as the Prime Minister of Cambodia stated last year, that as long as he’s the Prime Minister he thinks that by not having a law yet it would be a very good thing until, at least as long as he’s Prime Minister, Cambodia’s not needing an NGO law yet. In fact, late last month there was a draft law by the Ministry of the Interior that was put on the table at a council minister. And the draft law was, in fact, did not look at all dimensions of civil society because it mainly looked at only the role of NGOs and excluded others. And so what happened is that the council minister decided to not so much reject, but to send back the draft law to the Ministry of the Interior to work on this. My feeling is that the draft law will probably be ready for debate some time next year.