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NGOs and civil society

Dear Editor,

I have noted in two consecutive issues of the Post articles by Anette Marcher reporting

that "leaders of civil society" are critical of the Government's handling

of legislation for trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. In the October 13 issue

these leaders are not further identified, but in the October 27 issue it emerges

that all of them - or at least all who are named - are leaders of non-government


I have no brief either for or against NGOs: some make the world a better place, some

make it worse. But it is an abuse of language and reality to use "NGO"

interchangeably with "civil society".

Civil society is the citizenry as a whole, particularly as distinguished from particular

entities such as the Government, the military or religious organizations. NGOs, at

most, constitute a small fraction of civil society.

Furthermore, despite the label "non- government", many of them are financially

dependent on government - either local or foreign - and are to that extent not even

part of civil society, let alone its representatives.

NGO leaders have no more claim to be "leaders of civil society" than do

captains of football teams, supervisors of garment factories or symphony conductors.

All are selected as leaders by processes which may find the most suitable candidate

for the position concerned, but which are usually not democratic and which do not

at all involve the vast majority of civil society. Civil society as a whole selects

its leaders through such processes as voting in elections and joining political parties.

If NGO heads or symphony conductors have something of interest to say about the KR

trial legislation, by all means let the Post report it. But to present their opinions

as those of the leaders or representatives of civil society leaves the impression

that the writer seeks to inflate support for those opinions.

- Allen Myers, Phnom Penh



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