Cambodia's civic and civil society space has been open since 1993, making it a “civil society paradise”, Chin Malin, spokesman for Cambodia Human Rights Committee, said, pointing to the fact that there are more than 6,000 civil society organisations (CSOs).
The emergence of various forms of CSOs prompted Cambodia to establish laws to guarantee the rights and freedoms and ensure the protection of the interests of those civil society groups.
In fact, even after the government enacted laws to protect civil society, the numbers increased, Malin said in relation to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ call to action for human rights on June 20.
Guterres said that as Cambodia moves towards national elections in 2023, citizens and CSOs including women’s organisations need to be able to fully contribute and participate in policymaking that affect their lives.
He noted that civil society actors in Cambodia covered a wide range of issues, including service delivery in the development and humanitarian fields, promoting good governance, conservation, peace-building, and human rights.
“They are found in every province of the country, in every sector, and staffed by individuals and volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UN closely monitored the human rights situation during the recent commune council elections despite not having the mandate to get involved in assisting, organising or observing the event.
He said the UN is ready to support the government in taking steps to improve civic space through legal reforms to strengthen compliance with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations, including the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) and the Law on Trade Unions.
“As a development partner of Cambodia, we will continue to highlight the interdependence of all human rights and to collaborate with the government to improve civic space and to ensure that Cambodia’s development is shared, inclusive and harnesses the skills and contributions of the society as a whole and the country’s civil society,” he said.
In the meantime, Malin said looking at the number of CSOs, one can consider that “civil society space is widely open”, a “paradise” for CSOs in Cambodia.
“It’s a small country with a small population and more CSOs than any other major democracies in the world,” he said.
He stressed that it is because Cambodia’s law facilitated the creation and implementation of activities that do not pose a problem or obstacle for civil societies.
But he contended that despite the existence of more than 6,000 civil society groups, some of which are older than 30 years old, there were still problems related to their “quality and maturity”.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group LICADHO, said that in the past, on behalf of human rights and democracy organisations, there were restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
These include CSOs, trade unions, freedom of assembly, peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
“That is why the UN has raised these concerns about the freedom of civil society and freedom of assembly, peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom to form this organisation, association or union,” he said.
“This point is not only seen by national CSOs, even the UN has noted this point and urged the government to be more open to fundamental freedoms, especially the freedom of the CSOs to promote human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” he said.
But Malin said some civil societies were “not yet mature enough” to be part of the civic space.
“There are two issues, the first is related to civil society itself, and the second is related to the relationship between the government and civil society,” he cited.
Regarding the issue between civil society and the government, there are problems due to polarisation and the politicalisation of civil society.
He explained that there are many political parties and civil society, so each political party tries to use CSOs as a political tool to carry out their political activities and support their political agenda and goals.
This results in civil society losing their independence, political neutrality and mission to serve the interests of the people and society.
“Some civil society groups serve the society only in image, but their real goal is to attain political power. They start by portraying a civil society image, but then link up with a political party and take part in the party’s political activities.
“They also support it in order to share the benefit of civil society and political power in the country,” Malin said.
The involvement of civil society in the political issues and political agenda has caused their independence, political neutrality, and original mission in serving the society and nation’s interest.
“This is a challenge that makes civil society immature and not qualified enough to access or participate in the civic space,” he said