NGOs irate over gov’t ‘hijack’

By: Sean Teehan

Members of Cambodia’s civil society are rebuking their representation at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum last week, alleging the Kingdom’s civil society representatives were disproportionately government-aligned.

A statement released by six high-ranking NGO officials says that a national voting process, which elected SILAKA executive director Thida Khus to represent Cambodian civil society at a meeting held during the four-day summit in Kuala Lumpur, was ignored by the government. Instead, Doung Viroth, director of the Council of Ministers’ Department of Civil Society, NGO and Human Rights was sent.

“We regret that the Cambodian government continues to embarrass Cambodia in front of our regional friends,” the statement says.

But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said that Cambodia’s government is under no obligation to please NGOs, and wanted to send someone they believe represents the interests of the Cambodian people.

Some members of civil society organisations directly contradict the government’s policy viewpoints, Siphan said. For example, Kem Sokha was the founding leader of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and is now a leader for the opposition party.

“We were looking for a moderate NGO [representative] that serves the interest of the people,” Siphan said. “Civil society, not opposition.”

However, in protest of the Cambodian and Singaporean governments’ choices for civil society interface participants, Thailand’s NGOs withdrew from the meeting, according to a statement on the forum’s website.

Workshops at the summit focused on the economic integration of the ASEAN region’s 10 countries, said Community Legal Education Center labour department head Moeun Tola.

Little discussion was had about potential educational and resource disadvantages Cambodia and other less-developed ASEAN countries may face with the enactment of the planned free-flow of labour and goods in the region, Tola said yesterday.

“[Few mentioned] whether Cambodia has the educational system [that] would allow Cambodians to compete with people from other [ASEAN] countries,” he said. “It was a hijack from the government.”

Suon Bunsak, chief secretariat of Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee agreed with Tola, saying that government officials in Cambodia sent NGO representatives who are obliged to toe the government’s line.

It seems inevitable that businesses from richer countries will benefit to the detriment of Cambodians, he said.

“The Cambodian government appointed civil society representation that has a strong obligation to [speak for] their interests,” Bunsak said. “The NGOs cannot really raise the issues.”

SOURCE: THE PHNOM PENH POST