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Officials meet donor groups

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Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon speaks during a donor meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh.

Donor countries and development groups raised concerns about the controversial draft NGO law and other issues during a meeting with government officials yesterday in connection with more than US$1 billion in aid pledged to Cambodia last year.

NGOs and foreign governments have come out forcefully against the proposed law, which many say would create burdensome registration requirements and allow the government to shut down civil society groups arbitrarily. The law is expected to be advanced to the Council of Ministers in the coming weeks.

In prepared remarks at yesterday’s meeting, United States Agency for International Development Mission Director Flynn Fuller said the NGO law posed a significant threat to the Kingdom’s development.

“In these times of fiscal constraint, justifying increased assistance to Cambodia will become very difficult in the face of shrinking space for civil society to function,” Fuller said.

World Bank Country Manager Qimiao Fan, too, called for further discussion of the law. He also raised concern about property rights, an increasingly dire concern in a country where tens of thousands of people have been pushed off their land in recent years.

“With rapid urbanisation, the resumption of fast economic growth and the increasing interest from investors in large-scale commercial farming, land issues will become only more challenging, as exemplified in the Boeung Kak Lake area,” Qimiao Fan said, referencing the high-profile land dispute in Phnom Penh in which more than 4,000 families may ultimately be displaced by a project run by a ruling party senator.

But Karl Anders Larsson, a counselor at the Swedish embassy, said there was little debate on the NGO law or land rights yesterday beyond the prepared statements.

“It’s part of the overall discussion on development and poverty reduction – you have to include these issues, you can’t just leave them out of the discussion, but still, there was certainly not a real discussion” on these points, he said.

Reporters were ushered out of yesterday’s meeting during the opening remarks, and numerous government officials subsequently declined to comment on the gathering.

At a meeting last June, donors offered a record US$1.1 billion in aid to the Cambodian government. As part of that process, the two sides agreed on a set of 20 development benchmarks known as “Joint Monitoring Indicators”, which cover issues ranging from land rights to demining to judicial reform.

Ahead of yesterday’s meeting, working groups established by the government in cooperation with donors presented a report on the various indicators, saying that progress had been “encouraging in many cases”. They noted, however, that gains had in some cases been limited by a lack of resources and “the complexities of issues that are being addressed”.

Local civil society groups, meanwhile, submitted their own report on the indicators, raising serious concerns about the NGO law, land rights and government transparency, among other issues.

Larsson said the NGO report was “unfortunately not discussed”, nor was the government report.

Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said the JMIs were “a wonderful mechanism”, though he stressed the need for donors and the government to follow up on the benchmarks that have been set.

“If there’s a goal that’s not been met, who’s accountable?” he said.

Yesterday’s meeting also focused on the government’s National Social Protection Strategy, budgetary issues and the structure of future meetings. In his own opening remarks, Finance Minister Keat Chhon said the Kingdom was “well-positioned to take forward an ambitious and successful programme of growth that will deliver benefits for all Cambodians”.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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