THE establishment of a Cambodian People's Party commission to "monitor"
non-governmental organizations has heightened concerns about an apparent pre-election
campaign to control NGOs.
The "Cambodian People's Party NGO Monitoring Commission", headed by senior
CPP Minister and Hun Sen election strategist Sok An, is believed to have been established
around October. Its duties include identifying NGOs "that should be paid much
attention to from now till the 1998 elections," according to an internal party
memo seen by the Post.
The document refers to NGOs allegedly involved in "political activities",
citing human rights organizations and aid groups which receive funding from the US
Agency for International Development. It also includes religious organizations such
as World Vision in the "political" category.
The commission's main duties are listed as: compiling a directory of all NGOs, ensuring
regular liaison with them, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their projects.
At the same time, the government is introducing new financial reporting requirements
and operating contracts for NGOs, and preparing a draft law to govern them.
Some NGO representatives and observers welcome stricter regulation of Cambodia's
aid sector, noting that it is largely unregulated; virtually anyone can start an
However, critics note that the monitoring commission is not under government auspices;
it is clearly a CPP body, by name and membership. All of its 26 members are CPP officials,
and more than half are members of the party's permanent or standing committees. Its
chairman and vice-chairmen - Cabinet minister Sok An, Secretary of State for Interior
Im Chhun Lim and Kampong Cham MP Dith Monty - hold senior positions in the CPP party
hierarchy. Other members include senior Hun Sen advisor Om Yentieng, as well as key
CPP officials in the government including the Ministers of Commerce, Finance and
Health Cham Prasidh, Keat Chhon and Chhea Thang.
Sok An declined to comment to the Post, saying: "This is not an official thing
I would like to discuss - it's an internal thing. We do not do this in the [name]
of the government." he said Jan 27.
Sok An added that the government had always had a "very generous, very open"
policy toward NGOs - up till now it had not even insisted on receiving regular information
about their activities - and he disputed any suggestion that the CPP was targeting
NGOs for closure.
The written minutes of a commission meeting on Oct 23 - two days before the CPP began
a three-day congress to discuss its election strategies - outline what some in the
NGO community call the CPP's NGO 'hit list'.
The minutes refer to the "main NGOs funded by USA" - including Handicap
International, the CAPE education project, Pact, World Health Organization and, in
particular, human rights organizations.
Since the July coup in Phnom Penh, the United States has taken the hardest position
of any foreign donor against Hun Sen. It has suspended its aid contributions to Cambodia
except for "humanitarian" projects, including the work of some human rights
and legal groups.
The minutes of the commission meeting list the "problems of NGOs": uncertainties
about the number of aid groups, their budgets and funding sources, how many people
benefit from their projects and, lastly, the allegedly political nature of some of
"Some NGOs (number unclear) are involved in political activities, especially
the human rights organizations, religious organizations, USAID, World Vision, etc,"
the minutes read, according to an unofficial translation.
The commission's "mission statement" includes implementing a broad "NGO
monitoring mechanism" by appointing government, provincial, district and commune
officials to monitor and liaise with NGOs. The commission also decided to work to
build the strength of Khmer staff in NGOs, regularly attend NGO meetings and develop
good relations with aid organizations.
Included in the commission's plan of action is to "prioritize types and number
of NGOs that should be paid much attention to from now till the 1998 election",
"develop and send out the government's report forms to NGOs so that they report
regularly on their activities and budget expenditure", and develop a law "for
easy control over NGOs".
The minutes make it plain that the commission is not opposed to NGOs per se: they
record a statement by vice-chairman Im Chhun Lim that the increasing role of NGOs
is an "unchangeable trend" which Cambodia should not oppose.
But some NGO advocates say the commission's formation indicates that the CPP is positioning
itself to take action against NGOs it considers to be a political threat.
At the same time, some suggest, the party is seeking out poorly-funded local NGOs,
in order to offer them money.
The Cambodian Rehabilitation and Development Board, an arm of the Council for the
Development of Cambodia, has in recent months been seeking detailed information from
local and foreign NGOs on their funding and expenditure.
"We thought we were doing this for the government, not for the party,"
said the head of one Cambodian NGO, who noted that "when the government is dominated
by the party, of course they get access to every document given to the government".
Alleging that there was growing evidence of CPP funding NGOs, the man said the party
was trying to "identify their weakness - the lack of funding - so they can fund
the poor NGOs". CPP officials have been actively courting many Khmer NGOs, the
man said, and in at least one case had directly offered to help fund an organization.
In particular, fewer NGOs were turning up for meetings of the umbrella NGO election
watchdog group COFFEL, an apparent indication of "defections" to the CPP
in recent weeks. "They make contact with everyone they can influence, to try
to break us apart," the NGO representative said.
He added that there was nothing wrong with the government funding NGOs, but for a
political party to do so was a breach of the government's own regulations.
Instead of tackling the issue of weeding out bad NGOs which are doing little real
development work, or those which are blatantly political, the CPP was only encouraging
"Some NGOs [are started] by people just to survive and get a job...they need
money to function... If you provide them with resources, they can be very useful.
Even more so by using the name NGO; they can inspire more trust and confidence of
"[The CPP is trying to] build up relations, give them money and then around
the elections will give them the party message to spread... By taking the money,
they cannot refuse to support the party."
Chea Chamroeun, the CPP-aligned candidate who won the NGO representative slot on
the National Election Commission in a ballot marred by allegations of vote-buying,
allegedly promised to help find funding for NGOs which supported him. Sok An and
Om Yentieng, both on the CPP monitoring commission, allegedly lobbied NGOs on Chea
At the same time, the CPP is concerned about a few primarily foreign-funded NGOs
which it considers are likely to publicly challenge the national election administration
A senior CPP official confirmed to the Post that the party was concerned about NGOs
- especially human rights ones - funded by USAID and the Asia Foundation, which is
funded by the US Congress.
In addition, the official singled out the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID), a local
NGO mainly funded by Germany's Konrad Adenuer Foundation, as "a bone in the
throat" of Hun Sen and the CPP.
In an apparent statement that the government was looking for a reason to discredit
or close down KID, he suggested that its director Lao Mong Hay could expect his finances
to come under scrutiny by the government.
Mong Hay, one of Cambodia's most outspoken democracy advocates, turned down the govern-ment's
offer of the vice-chair of the National Election Commission, asking for the chairmanship
instead. He later unsuccessfully ran against Chea Chamroeun for the NGO seat on the
National Election Commission.
The government, meanwhile, is moving to introduce a new standard operating contract
for foreign NGOs and international organizations in Cambodia.
A draft contract prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that aid organizations
have to be non-political, non-missionary and non-profit. It specifies that NGOs can
be closed down or expatriate staff expelled if deemed to be directly or indirectly
involved in political activities.
The most contentious provisions of the draft, however, are the requirements that
all NGOs operating in Phnom Penh must have a starting annual budget of at least $1
million, and those working in the provinces must have at least $2 million. At least
10% of the budget must be deposited at the state-run Central Bank of Cambodia.
Several NGO chiefs complained that the demands are extravagant and counter-productive.
But they suggested the provisions were motivated more by incompetence or greed than
by a government bid to establish a pretext for closing down smaller, allegedly politically-motivated
The director of the Foreign Ministry's press department, Hor Sothun, said the government
was flexible and prepared to negotiate over the draft. But he added that he did not
believe that the $1-2 million budget requirements for NGOs were excessive. If NGOs
had smaller budgets of only, say, $100,000, they would spend all their funding on
staff salaries, cars and rents - with no money left to help the poor, he said.
Sothun said the government had no intention of closing NGOs but wanted to have adequate
coordination with them, to ensure that projects were not being duplicated.
A long-awaited law governing NGOs and associations is yet to reach the National Assembly,
but all NGOs are expected to have to re-register with the government once the law
The Cooperation Committee of Cambodia (CCC), which has made representations to the
government over the draft standard contract and law, declined to comment.