Civil society groups yesterday hit back at the government after a Ministry of Interior statement released on Wednesday warned NGOs that they would be breaking ministry protocols on political neutrality by “directly or indirectly” supporting an unnamed political party or its protests.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party has planned three days of ongoing demonstrations starting from Sunday and has invited NGOs to address the crowd if they wish.
A statement released yesterday by the “Situation Room” – a coalition of election monitors that will send a representative to speak about the election at the demonstrations – did not address the government warning directly, but outlined its rights in relation to the protest.
“[We] monitor and intervene for human rights violations and give first aid to people who are victims during any protest in Cambodia.… Strengthening democracy and basic rights is a core mission of civil society,” the statement reads.
It adds that 800 first-aid officers and an additional 800 monitors will be deployed for the upcoming demonstrations.
The government has long accused some NGOs of being politically one-sided due to overlap between civil society and opposition party criticisms of the ruling party.
A proposed draft law to regulate NGOs was shelved in late 2011 after outcry that the government was trying to give itself undue powers to control the civil society sector and stifle criticism.
This has left NGOs in a legal grey area in which they must be registered with the Ministry of Interior, provide internal codes of conduct and pledge not to be politically active, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said.
“As it stands now, we are under direct control of the Ministry of Interior. Without the law, we are still not completely independent or protected,” he said.
Virak added that the ministry’s statement “reflected poorly” on the government, as the rights of civil society should include the freedom to be politically active.
“I think [this] narrow interpretation of civil society is also understood by many Cambodian NGOs [who self-censor]. In the US, civil society will lobby for a political party … if they agree with [certain policies].”
Sophal Ear, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said the role of some NGOs was primarily to be a check on government – even if that involves indirectly supporting an opposition party.
“You have to speak truth to power. I’d be more worried if NGOs started supporting the authorities. There are not supposed to be governmental non-governmental organisations,” he said.
“Of course, it comes with the territory, and if the CNRP were to somehow [take power] … I would expect NGOs to turn around and criticise the CNRP’s performance.”
Kounila Keo, an independent blogger and social media consultant, said that although many organisations remained politically neutral as institutions, NGO leaders often reveal their political allegiances online.
“I’ve seen quite a few [public] Facebook pages of NGO people who post stuff related to politics. Sometimes, what they say shows they are a little bit more biased with the opposition and they sympathise a lot with the opposition,” she said.
“I think we need to be more neutral.”
The Ministry of Interior could not be reached for comment yesterday.