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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CPP setting up internal NGO-watchdog group

CPP setting up internal NGO-watchdog group

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

NGO.

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

them.

"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

them.

"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 people.

"[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

Chamroeun's behalf.

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

and result.

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

NGOs.

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

is passed.

The Cooperation Committee of Cambodia (CCC), which has made representations to the

government over the draft standard contract and law, declined to comment.

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