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Reactions mixed for mooted NGO liaison

SOCIAL activists have offered mixed responses to a recent proposal for an elected representative to promote dialogue between the NGO sector and the government, with some calling instead for a national commission that would represent the sector’s many disparate views.

The proposal, aired in talks on Tuesday between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights to Cambodia, would involve the election of an NGO representative to liaise with the government, said Om Yentieng, chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed with Subedi’s idea of calling on the NGOs in Cambodia to elect their representative in order to facilitate dialogue with the government,” he told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting.

But NGO representatives contacted on Thursday said the election of one person was problematic given the broad scope of groups in Cambodia.
“There’s no single representative of civil society. Civil society, by its nature, has a lot of different interests,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

Sin Somuny, executive director of Medicam, an umbrella organisation for health NGOs, agreed, saying a national committee of some sort would better represent the wide variety of nongovernmental groups.

“Instead of electing one person as an NGO representative, which I think is very fragile, I feel that we should have a national civil society committee” that would be represented by an elected chairman, he said.

“When there is one person, they can be bought or can change their mind. We need to have a system.”

WE BELIEVE THAT THIS IS A NEW STEP TOWARDS IMPROVING HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES ...

Ou Virak said he also welcomed a civil society-government forum as a counterpart to the pre-existing government-donor forum and government-private sector forum.
‘Loud’ voices
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said on Thursday that Hun Sen’s stated intention was indicative of a “new trend” that would “reduce the louder voices of some NGOs” and increase the cooperation between government and civil society as a whole. “We believe that this is a new step towards improving human rights issues in Cambodia,” he said.

The issue of “loud” NGOs was also raised by Om Yentieng on Tuesday, when he warned that out of more than 1,000 organisations, four or five shouted more loudly than the rest, creating a “bias” within the NGO community.

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the idea for a national NGO body could be derailed by the questionable nature of some groups registered in the Kingdom.

“Some NGOs are created by the government in order to show the international community that it is a democratic country,” he said, adding that they could be used as a tool “to elect a representative that is loyal to the government”.

Many more groups are either inactive or produce work of uncertain quality, he said, arguing that only those “recognised by the international community” should be considered for the job.

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