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Cambodian Civil Society: Challenges and Prospects

Khmer Rouge Soldiers (Taekwonweirdo/Flickr)

Khmer Rouge Soldiers (Taekwonweirdo/Flickr)

Second issue I think is also a critical challenge is the question of sustainability of civil society organizations in Cambodia. Clearly, the question of sustainability regarding the funding situation because we have to understand that in the past 10 years funding has been driven from outside. And I think we should expect that there will be a decline in the coming years. And if this is to be the increasing trend, and of course we would see that the funding situation will affect not only the effectiveness of the civil-society organizations, but more importantly the future sustainability of the movement and the development of civil-society organizations in Cambodia.

Third, I would also put as a challenge, is that based on our more than 20 workshops that we organized, that there is still increasingly a misunderstanding of what the role is of civil society, by both the civil society actors themselves and the government officials. For example, on the civil society organizations, they think that civil society, or NGOs, not so much in nongovernment organizations, but AGO, anti-government organizations -that’s another thing. Also some would continue to think that civil society organizations, by working that you basically are forming a shadow government, or acting as an opposition party. I think this is a little bit, very difficult in a Cambodian political situation. So I would say this is really a challenge we have to ensure that more and more people understand the role of civil society.

On the government side, of course, there’s also a misunderstanding that they tend to label, or tend to put NGOs and other civil society actors in the same basket with the opposition party. When civil society organizations begin to criticize, whether constructively or otherwise, then you’re not part of the government, you’re not supporting the government. Therefore you’re supporting the other side. And therefore you’re not helping and so forth. So of course, there has been a lot of improvement but this is still a critical challenge.

And I think we should not expect the transformation of understanding overnight. Given the long history of mistrust, and I think that was underlined by His Royal Highness, this is one of the Cambodian dilemmas, the deep-rooted suspicions and mistrust by not only those in power but also those who are in civil society. You know very well that one of the reasons, for example, why civil society is becoming quite popular in Cambodia, and it still is popular, is because the people, they do not trust the government that much. And I think this is clearly the fact that we had three different regimes in the past who really were pretty much oppressing the people. And that’s why the trust and the confidence of people in the government is still a major challenge. Now, the other challenge I would put also on the civil society side is that there is increasingly a need to work together--forming alliances, networks, sharing information and ideas and so forth. This is still not the way forward yet. But I think there are some signs that it is emerging already.

I also put this as another challenge, the relationship between civil society and government. Now the recent violence that took place on the 24th of November is already a key in point, is that the government already allegedly linking civil society organizations to “terrorist” group. And I think it has been stated by the government spokesman and, of course, the Prime Minister himself saying that civil society involving terrorism. And I think this is something that we have to keep in mind, that this is not just one particular group or one particular person, but I think the overall image of civil society in Cambodia, that it is linked to terrorism. This is a really very terrible image. And I think that’s underlying to some extent the relationship between civil society and the government at the present. And I think hopefully that this will change over time. That is very important. Another thing is that the relationship between civil society organizations and local authorities. Local authorities continue to challenge some of the civil society organizations. And I think this is based on our discussions and, of course, to some extent I think because local authorities lack understanding also of the civil society.

Finally, I think I would say the last critical challenge facing civil society is the transformation of the relationship between civil society organizations and the partners or what we would call the donors. There’s still unease, an uneasy relationship to some extent because donors, they do have their own agenda also, you know. And therefore, and of course Cambodian civil society organizations, they try to cater to what the donors’ agenda. And therefore, some of the key projects, some of the issues that they want to work on are not being addressed the way they want. So, what I’m saying is that they are more donor-driven. And that is not a very positive thing unless the civil society organizations themselves, they think of what’s good for the society and they continue on that rather than being dictated by the external donors.

Now let me touch on briefly also on three critical roles and, of course, they will be challenges also, for civil society in Cambodia. One is the role of civil society in the reform agenda. There are many reforms that have been underway already and they continue to move forward. One, for example is the good governance agenda. And good governance, of course, is very sensitive, very political. And it can cause a lot of problems. And good governance can be a difficult subject, look at one particular project on corruption. Anticorruption is a very difficult word. In fact, last year the World Bank conducted three surveys on corruption in Cambodia. One was on the household survey. One was looking at the business practices. Another one, of course, the general understanding of the public, particularly on the civil servants. And the World Bank subcontracted the work to local NGOs. And in fact, of course, the report was not being analyzed in Cambodia. All of the data was sent to the World Bank for analysis in Washington, D.C. and of course when the report came out the government was very upset, you know, and rating Cambodia as one of the countries that was really mostly corrupt. So I think this is also underlining another tension, for example, I think to what extent the government will continue to play within this.

The other issue would be demobilization. This is also a critical issue. So I think those are, of course, another one would be public administration reform. So we have a lot of reforms that we have to go through. Another one, I think, would be a challenging also role of civil society would be the communal election, for example. This is going to be the first time that Cambodia will organize communal election. And therefore, it’s going to be massive work. And I think we can expect the local authority to execute all the work. Therefore, the civil society organizations, particularly those involving elections, will have to be more active.

Another one, I think, that was raised already this morning by His Royal Highness, is the role of civil society, particularly in the raising public awareness and education on the upcoming Khmer Rouge trial, for example. And this is also very sensitive, because I think, in fact, those organizations that are beginning to conduct surveys, educating the public about the trial, the need for participation of all the people, also being challenged by the authorities who are saying “Why are you doing this.” You know, you are raising a political issue here and so forth and so on. So I think this is really underlying a tone.