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NGOs battle perceptions of government threat

NGOs battle perceptions of government threat

AS the government moves forward with plans to create a new Senate, a number of NGOs

objecting to the proposal are battling perceptions that they are enemies of the government

or tools of the opposition.

The Evening News paper - considered to be a pro-government mouthpiece - called the

NGOs' objections "a campaign against the Royal Government".

Attacks like this, coupled with the legal action pending against two human rights

workers in Sihanoukville, are raising worries about the government's respect for

NGOs' impartiality.

"The NGO groups are frightened," UN rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg said

Jan 21.The court case sends "a very bad signal" and should be dropped,

he asserted.

Individual members face targeting in court and in print. "Mrs. Chea Vannath,

President of the Center for Social Development ... led this opposition movement,"

said the News in its Dec 25 story about an NGO forum to discuss alternatives to the

Senate.

The Sam Rainsy Party also participated in the forum, and the News headline alleged

the SRP "is behind the opposition against the Senate". The Rainsy party

"use[s] the ... NGOs as a springboard to stop the formation of the Senate."

Although the paper ran a "Civil society denies that they serve the SRP"

story the next day, NGO leaders say they are alarmed by the perception that their

activities are perceived as politicized.

Khmer Institute for Democracy director Lao Mong Hay said he was "personally

concerned" by the News article.

"We can offer individual views because we are detached from the day to day running

of the government," he said, but added that when those views are interpreted

as political: "We feel threatened."

Yet he vowed that the NGOs would continue their concerted campaign on the Senate

- on the grounds that it is a needless expense, was not agreed to by voters, and

requires extensive Constitutional amendments - and on other issues such as pushing

for a Khmer Rouge trial.

"Over the past few months, we are more united," he said. "If we NGOs

all stick together as we have been doing, they cannot swallow us all up."

Vannath herself said she did not care that she was singled out for criticism, noting

that the CSD was leading the debate on the Senate and she is not speaking for herself,

but on behalf of civil society.

"When they call me the leader of the opposition movement, I say that we do not

support opposition parties' views - if it happens to be the same view, it just happens

to be like that," she said. "One reporter asked me, 'So, does this mean

you are against the King?' That is not the point, we are not 'against' or ëfor' ...

we want to solve the problem."

She did acknowledge possible hazards in speaking out against any government initiative.

"Everything is politicized. We don't care about politics, we just focus on the

issues only ... but some people don't see it that way," she said. "The

risk is part of the job ... but we try to keep ourselves non-biased, non-political

- that is part of our protection."

Meanwhile, the genuine political opposition, the Sam Rainsy Party, is struggling

to ensure that its criticisms are heeded - and is also concerned about security.

The party has objected to the Senate as planned, instead endorsing the King's recent

suggestion that members be elected. They have also submitted four sets of "Questions

of the Week to the government and have yet to receive replies on such issues as deforestation,

food shortages and arrests of Khmer Rouge leaders.

Not answering violates Assembly regulations and the Constitution, said SRP Secretary-General

Yim Sokha. "But they are in power and they can do what they like."

Sokha added that attempting to be a vocal, critical opposition is not without its

risks. "The CPP and the government are the same ... and the ideology of the

party is that anyone who goes against the party way is its enemy," he said.

"And that is why we must be careful all the time - keep our schedules quiet,

be careful when going places."

Sokha noted that the government platform lauds the importance of the opposition,

but said the reality is different from the words.

"A strong, organized opposition is a basic need of democracy ... but so far

on this issue we are a little bit pessimistic," he said.

Those who consider themselves government watchdogs say their voices must be heard.

"The government must learn to live with different opinions," said Thun

Saray, president of the rights group ADHOC - who served 17 months in prison for forming

an opposition party in the early 1990's. "If a different opinion means you are

an enemy, democracy is finished."

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