From accusations of official in volvement in illegal logging, to claims that the
abuse of human rights is a tool of governance in the Kingdom, June ought to have
been a bad month for the Cambodian government.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has made many powerful promises in speeches over the last year. Whether or not the government has managed to live up to them will be put to test on June 19 when the Cambodian Development Cooperation Forum (formerly known as the Consultative Group) meets to discuss progress over 2006 and set benchmarks for the year ahead.
But the government has dealt with the barrage of criticism in a blasé manner.
The in-depth report from UK-based NGO Global Witness released on June 1, was dismissed,
then banned. While the damming assessment of the human rights situation in the Kingdom,
made by UN Special Rapporteur, Yash Ghai, on June 12, was refuted as ill-formed and
With this in mind, experts are wondering what will happen on June 19, when diplomats,
donors, and government officials sit down at their major annual meeting to discuss
the direction of Cambodia's future development trajectory.
"I worry that maybe the time for being firm with the government has passed,"
said one source with extensive experience of donor-government meetings, who requested
anonymity. "I worry that the donor community have missed their opportunity now."
Consultative Group (CG) meetings have been the annual fora at which donors and the
Cambodian government discussed the development of Cambodia, pledged next year's aid,
and set performance benchmarks.
At previous CG meetings, the government regularly failed to fulfill their agreed
benchmarks. But disregarding a decade-long string of broken promises, international
donors pledged $601 million dollars in aid to Cambodia at the 2006 CG meeting.
This year, the event's name and format have changed - from the CG to the Cambodia
Development Cooperation Forum (CDCF) and the Cambodian government has, for the first
time, taken on full responsibility for organizing the event.
Will the CDCF be any different? Will donors "be firm" with the government
and raise difficult questions about illegal logging, land concentration and human
rights, or will broken promises continue to be rewarded with more aid?
"It is a tough question to answer," said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director
of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, which has presented the 2007 NGO statement to the CDFC.
"But we must keep trying, we must keep up the debates and dialogue with the
Australia is Cambodia's third-largest donor nation and new ambassador Margaret Adamson
is optimistic about the meeting.
"This will be the first time donors and the Cambodian Govern-ment meet
in the new format of the CDCF which signals Cambodia's desire to increase its management
of the priorities and better coordination of international development assistance,"
But the track record of achieving results at CG meetings is poor. At the December
2006 CG meeting, World Bank Country Director Ian Porter said discussions had identified
three main areas of improvement which would be monitored in the run up to the next
CG meeting: the passing of an anti-corruption law, enactment of comprehensive judicial
reform and a commitment to natural resource management.
A year on and the anti-corruption law is still languishing in draft form, judicial
reform is progressing at a glacial pace, and the government's management of natural
resources is being lambasted from all sides.
This is unacceptable, said Leng Bunhong, an officer at Cambodian Independent Teachers
"Our biggest goal for the CDFC is that the donors will urge the government to
adopt the anti-corruption law as soon as possible," he said. "It is very
important, we need a law to punish people who commit corruption in Cambodia."
This year, NGOs and civil society organizations working in Cambodia have prepared
a statement which identifies three key issues - land, good governance, and human
development - that look very similar to 2006's three main areas of improvement.
"NGOs are in a position to offer constructive input and feedback to the government,
to help them implement their plans and to help them improve the lot of Cambodia's
poorest people," said Sam Ath. "Our statement is asking the government
to look at the impact of rapid economic growth on development - and start questioning
whether the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to access the benefits of this
But the specter of Cambodia's potentially-vast oil revenues haunts the 2007 CDFC
in a way it has not any previous CG meetings. Some experts worry this will make donors
more reluctant to take the government to task.
"Oil revenues may hit soon, and the donors are very conscious of that,"
said the source with experience of donor-government meetings. "They all are
obsessed with it and all see themselves as the key to coordinating it well."
But for others, Cambodia's nascent extractive industry heralds a new chance for constructive
cooperation. "With the prospect of substantial revenues from extractive industries
[donors want to] encourage the Government to put in place the legal, taxation and
policy framework to assist in the management of these revenues for the benefit of
the Cambodian people," said Ambassador Adamson.
A number of companies are now actively exploring Cambodia's off-shore reserves in
the Gulf of Thailand, yet information - for example whether "signatory bonuses"
have already been paid, and if so, how much and to whom - has not been forthcoming.
The secrecy surrounding Cambodia's oil is just one part of a far broader social problem
which the CDFC needs to discuss, said Sam Ath. "Many NGOs are concerned about
the lack of access to information in Cambodia," he said.
"The poor have a right to participate in the development process but to ensure
that they are able to, the government must release information. We just want the
government to consult the people, inform the people, and consider the social, not
just economic, aspects of development."
Donors could help with this, said an attorney working at USAID-funded Community Legal
Education Center (CLEC). For example, current high-profile cases of land-grabbing,
such as that between the villagers of Kong Yu and Kong Thom in Rattanakkiri province,
and Finance Minister Keat Chhun's sister, Keat Chlony, could be raised at the CDFC,
"This particular case is very important as this is the most prominent of many
other cases of land grabbing currently happening to Cambodia's indigenous people,"
they said. "This is the time that the government could show their position and
take action. It would be a good indication for donors to see if the government is
likely to do what they say they will."