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NGOs proclaim neutrality

NGOs proclaim neutrality

I NTERNATIONAL and local non-government organizations (NGOs) are seeking to distance

themselves from Cambodia's increasingly acrimonious political arena, ahead of communal

and national polls scheduled to be held by the end of 1998.

A June 5 statement from the Committee for Cooperation on Cambodia (CCC) affirmed

the non-partisan nature of the aid organizations and urged the government and political

parties to respect NGO's neutrality.

The declaration comes amid fears that in the lead-up to elections political parties

will turn to the NGO community to advance their own interests.

"This is a pro-active stance in advance of serious problems. Its an attempt

to clear the water before it gets muddy," said CCC executive director, Carole

Garrison.

Garrison noted that it was inevitable that NGOs' activities became enmeshed in

politics given that the country's administration was still deeply linked to political

interests.

"[The CCC statement] is trying to put some Teflon on the NGOs that will help

the politicization slip off them as they go about their tasks," explained the

CCC director.

Already NGO workers say they are feeling pressure from parties.

One provincial worker for a large international NGO described an occasion where

the organization had refused to accompany local authorities on a rural aid-giving

mission lest the NGO's contribution be construed as partisan.

"That would have created a positive impression for one political party through

our assistance and we don't want to be associated with that," said the aid worker.

She noted that the problem could become particularly intense in former Khmer Rouge

held areas throughout the northwestern provinces, as Funcinpec and the CPP battle

to woo the loyalty of villagers there.

Chea Vannath, vice president of the Center for Social Development (CSD), a local

NGO, lamented the fact that the need to "balance" political interests sometimes

took priority over development objectives.

As well, Vannath acknowledged that more explicit political pressures had hampered

her organization's work. She recalled a recent CSD Public Forum on social issues

held in Phnom Penh for Kandal province villagers.

"When they returned to the village, the sub-district chief called them into

the office and asked them why they had gone to Phnom Penh and for what purpose,"

she recalled.

"Then he said, 'If something happens [to the villagers] the local authorities

won't be responsible.' That's intimidation," said Vannath.

In addition to overt intimidation and other cases where political parties were

clearly setting up their own NGOs, Vannath said that aid organizations' activities

were often compromised due to their need to work closely with local authorities to

get their job done. As a result, NGOs could be seen as biased toward the local official's

political affiliation.

"We have to make it clear that what we're doing is non-partisan," said

the CSD official, and urged other NGOs to resist the political tug.

" We, the organizations, play the game of politicians, instead of doing our

job. We need to play the NGO game," she said.

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