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Comment : The way ahead to a civil society

Thun Saray (pictured right), president of local human rights NGO

ADHOC, points the way to how the strenghtening of a civil society in Cambodia should


AFTER 20 years of warfare and the terrible losses during the Khmer Rouge period,

Cambodia is struggling to rebuild its society and culture on the basis of a democratic

constitution and human rights aspirations.

Change and progress in Cambodia over the past four years have been undeniable. In

a short space of time the country has opened up, it has a democratic constitution

which contains important human rights guarantees, democratic institutions, free press

and over 100 civic associations of many varieties. Human rights organizations such

as ADHOC are able to carry out countrywide training programs unhindered, visit prisons

and have a good access to the Ministries of Justice and Interior.

However, despite this progress, the political context of Cambodia remains unstable

due to the on-going conflict with the Khmer Rouge and the continuing struggle between

political factions.

The little understanding of the functioning of all opposition continues to be a feature

of Cambodian society and the tradition of violence continues to permeate daily life.

The civil service remains politicized and there has been little progress in the reduction

of the factionalism.

Two years after the promulgation of the Constitution, the Constitutional Council

has yet to be set up which is the key body to defend the Constitution. In these circumstances,

promulgation of laws such as the press law and actions such as the sale of the majority

of Cambodia's forests seems to be against the Constitution.

The extreme poverty of Cambodia's countryside, the weak administrative structures,

transport and communication hinders the rapid development of favorable conditions.

Large scale development assistance is available to Cambodia, but because of lack

of development understanding and management capacity, must of this assistance is

being directly managed by the donors which is seriously undermining the Cambodian


Some development is inappropriate - like the massive investment in casinos or

the extraction of resources at unsustainable rates.

It is in this context that Cambodia's nascent civil society must be assessed.

What kind of civil society do we have in Cambodia?

Strengths. Today we see the emergence of a large number of professional associations,

local NGOs, newspapers, small business associations, etc. Professional associations

existed before 1975 but NGOs are new a phenomenon in a country where, until recently,

the state alone was responsible for all aspects of life and society. There are now

over 100 local NGOs and most of them are genuinely rooted in the local communities.

Despite the newness of this work and the problems encountered, progress has been

made in all sectors. The maid is learning to use its power with greater skill and

responsibility, professional associations are carrying out activities on behalf of

their members and lobbying the government. There is collaboration among the local

NGOs. There is also increased understanding of the role of genuine and independent

civic organizations which are free from political links. It is also mentioned that

up to now the government and the general public have not opposed, and in some cases

have actually been supportive, of the emergence of civic organizations and activities.

This is despite the political difficulties at the national level.

The weaknesses at present hindering the emergence of a civic society are the lack

of human resources and the ability to quickly set up and effectively manage civic


Gaining experience and understanding is a long term process. We do not yet have sufficient

cooperation, neither between NGOs nor different sectors. This lack of cooperation

also weakens our efforts to build up a strong society as a counter-balancing power

to the government. This situation can partially be explained by our efforts to build

up our own organizations and activities which leaves us little time to reflect together

on national issues.

We also need the time to overcome our distrust of each other stemming from the Khmer

Rouge period and its aftermath, in particular, between those who remain and those

who left Cambodia. This is a slow process that cannot be forced. Collaboration is

a step-by-step process as mutual trust is built. Sometimes, foreigners find it difficult

to understand this situation and try to force increased cooperation.

The Cambodian media is unfortunately still dominated by political interests which

undermine their independence and credibility, especially when they indulge in politically

motivated attacks. There are some which are independently advocating public interest

or practicing genuine investigative reporting. Those newspapers that do have independent

lines are owned by foreigners who are providing important information and analysis,

but cannot speak for the Khmers. This is a critical weakness in our emerging civil

society. The media still has a very weak role in educating and building up the values

of civil society. The media still has a very weak role in Cambodian society. The

media is the essential foundation of a civil society as the protector of culture

and values. In other countries, it plays an important role in the elaboration of

studies and policies for the government. Today in Cambodia, this role in more usually

being played by foreign advisors and donors whose understanding of Cambodia can only

be limited.

Our emerging civil society is very dependent on outside foreign funding. We hope

such dependence is only temporary until Cambodia is able to support its own civil

organizations and people have the increased possibility for voluntary work once their

own livelihoods are assured.

However, there are certain donors who impose models of development on their partners

and control their growth and direction. This attitude arises from a lack of trust,

and often little effort is made to build up this trust by the foreign donors for

whom partnership counts less than their own plans. In many cases the local partners

are too weak to understand this process to be able to resist it. In some cases donors

have resorted to setting up their own local structures and NGOs rather than entrust

tasks to existing genuine local organizations. Is this partnership? This can lead

to increased difficulties in their own efforts to cooperate and coordinate.

We do indeed recognize the important role of regional and international networking

and partnerships between civic organizations as one of the most important ways of

strengthening our civil society. In Asia, this has been recognized and good contacts

have been developed by NGOs and associations in the countries of the region to support

each other and learn from different experiences. This is particularly important given

the Asian perspective on human rights and development where we need solidarity to

counter the argument that development must come before human rights.

Some important roles played by civil society in Cambodia today.

  • Encouragement of people's participation in the development process and help increase

    their awareness and to understand the situation and the role and functioning of civil

    society. This is done through seminars and training programs to share new information

    and to allow free expression of opinions and ideas. These have remained important

    activities of Cambodian NGOs since the UN election period and will take on a new

    life with upcoming local elections in 1997 and national elections in 1998.

  • Reduce poverty in our society at the grass roots where the government does not

    reach to ensure that all have a fair access to the country's resources, aid money

    and growing GNP. Cambodians have a developed concern and awareness of injustice and

    inequalities from the long years of communism and Khmer Rouge rule. Cambodian NGOs

    are able to harness this critical spirit in their activities and work for justice.

    The approaches for development, in particular community development, used by NGOs

    also emphasizes participation, self reliance and justice.

  • To participate in activities which promote peace, democracy and human rights

    in order to respect human rights and to protect people's rights. This is done through

    widespread human rights education courses which have been continuing since the elections

    and through initiatives such as our annual peace march with Buddhist leaders to show

    our desire to end the fighting in Cambodia.

  • To assist in safeguarding the democratic processes through lobbying and functioning

    of democratic institutions. This has been done through issuing of joint press statements

    on restrictive press laws, the expulsion of Members of Parliament, and human rights

    abuses of the Khmer Rouge. Activity is also taken by "quiet diplomacy"

    to express our opinions and by publication in our journals.

  • To be an observer of elections to ensure they are free and fair. At present Cambodian

    NGOs are preparing to become involved in the election education and observation process

    for the 1997 and 1998 elections which will be important tests of our new democracy.

  • Work to help Cambodia's state institutions act as intermediaries between the

    state and the citizens in the resolution of disputes. In many cases disputes are

    worsened by the fact that neither government officials nor the citizens clearly know

    their rights and obligations, and arbitrary decisions are often taken. These situations

    often easily degenerate into violence. Therefore, strengthening civil society in

    Cambodia also means the strengthening of the government's understanding and knowledge

    of human rights and lobbying for the implementation of a genuine rule of law, and

    the monitoring of this process. Cambodian human rights NGOs are providing human rights

    training to government officials, police and military. Efforts are also being made

    to seek dispute-solving mechanisms at the local level whereby civic groups can play

    a role in mediating on behalf of the citizens and reducing the violence in our society.

  • Other areas of cooperation are the participation of NGOs in the preparation of

    a basic document for the inter-governmental international commission for the reconstruction

    of Cambodia (ICORC) and the UN social summit.



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