A decade of war has had a devastating effect on Cambodia, destroying the infrastructure, the health and education systems, and the religion. The Paris Peace Agreement of 1991 aimed to end the Cambodian Civil War and served as a foundation to pursue a path to democracy, which is based on the rule of law and the respect for human rights. In 1993, with the strong support of the United Nations Transitional Authority a constitutional election took place in Cambodia. Following the election a new Cambodian constitution emerged, creating a democratic state with respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As part of the constitution, the Cambodian government accepted the basic rights of its citizens and the need to work hand in hand with civil society groups such as Non-Governmental Organizations, Inter-governmental Organizations, social movements, human rights defenders, academics, the media, think tanks and other interest groups to promote growth and prosperity within the Cambodian society.
In this context, civil society plays a crucial role and fulfills key functions such as promoting human rights (Women´s and Children´s Rights), providing and delivering humanitarian aid, raising awareness about current political and social issues, providing support to marginalized groups, advocating for positive social change, fostering accountability and transparency, and monitoring and influencing the government to shape policies and laws.
However, during the election of July 2013, Cambodia’s path to democracy received a severe setback. The ruling party, the Cambodia People Party (CPP), began to use the legal system to limit civil society activities and individual voices. As a result, civil society members were threatened with violence and continuously faced intimidation. In general, Cambodia witnessed a limit to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Moreover, the situation for independent political commentators and human rights defenders has deteriorated with people being arrested and put in jail for expressing their views on social media or others being detained for protesting over the loss of their land or the removal of natural resources by elite groups.
The World Bank has officially revised Cambodia’s economic status, shifting it from a low-income to a lower-middle income country. Although economic growth remains strong at 7 percent per year, Cambodia still faces many political and social challenges. Widespread corruption persists, many people are still living below the poverty line, and the judiciary, military, and economy are dominated by the ruling group.
What are the key challenges?
One of the key challenges for Cambodian civil society is the decline in foreign funding. Civil society funding has gradually fallen since 2015, decreasing by about 14 percent in 2015, and 15 percent in 2016. Statistics from the Organization Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that aid from major donors including Japan, South Korea, France, U.S., Asian Development Bank, United Nations Development Programme fell from USD 970 million in 2014 to USD 830 million in 2015. This marked the first decrease since 2004, while the new commitments made by donors dropped from USD 1.7 billion to USD 1.171 billion. It is believed that foreign aid will continue to fall while the Cambodian government shows no interest in moving towards democracy.
In September 2017, the Cambodian authorities arrested Mr. Kim Sokha, the leader of the main political opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), accusing him of treason over quotes he had made about US political support. The accusation was strongly denied. The US State Department called on Cambodia to release him and requested the government to reverse the decision to ban his party. However, the Judiciary of Cambodia continued to ban CNRP members from politics for five years. Subsequently, the United States declared an end to funding support for the upcoming national election on 29th July, 2018. Because of this limited funding, civil society has now a reduced capacity to support citizens and communities.
The legal framework is another significant challenge to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). The Cambodian government uses harassment and intimidation against human rights and advocacy activists. The Law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) that was promulgated in August 2015 is considered to be highly problematic and implies significant restrictions to the freedom of association. All associations except Community Based Organizations are required to register with the Ministry of Interior or Ministry Foreign Affair and International Cooperation. This results in a difficult and burdensome process, especially for CSOs that work on sensitive issues such as land rights, youth engagement, human rights, and labor unions. LANGO grants significant decision-making power to government officials. Henceforth, CSOs are only allowed to demonstrate if their issues are aligned with government policies. Protests that are not aligned with govern policy are not allowed and are considered a threat to public order. Certain provisions of the new Telecommunication Law enacted in November 2015 caused grave concerns about citizen’s right to freedom of expression. This implies both public communication as well as private communication, online and offline. In a briefing released by LICADHO analyzing the telecommunication law, it was stated that the ambiguity of the provisions permitted the government to secretly listen to private citizen’s conversations, to destroy the proof prior to trials, and to control personal information throughout Cambodia. Under government pressure, many independent newspaper and radio station have been closed down. This has severely restricted the effectiveness of the independent media in Cambodia.
Individual freedom of expression has been further threatened by the introduction of the Lèse Majesté Law. Under the amended Article 437 of the Criminal Code for “insulting the King”, the use of words, gestures, writings, sketches or objects which undermine the dignity of a person can be perceived as an insult. A person who insults the King is liable to one to five years in jail and has to pay a fine of 2 million (equal to USD 500) to 10 million riels.
A further challenge is the Taxation Law of 1997 which provides certain income tax exemptions, including income from business and government contracts to organizations with religious, charitable, scientific, and literary or education purposes. Although CSO are exempt from tax on vehicles, the process for obtaining exemption is tremendously complicated and requires dealing with numerous government ministries. Some CSOs are under investigation for nonpayment of tax on the income earned from economic activities.
What are the opportunities for civil society in Cambodia?
Despite the decline in CSOs activities due to the current landscape, a number of opportunities have emerged. CSOs have transformed themselves into small and medium social enterprises to pursue financial sustainability. They sell food, and homemade crafts, run small coffee shops, or organic food product shops and promote education programs. Other CSOs generate income through providing services including technical expertise, capacity development, and legal support to vulnerable community groups who suffer from land grabbing, rape and domestic violence. Some CSOs sustain funds by collecting member fees (Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC) and NGO forum) or selling their own publications such as the prominent institution Cambodia Development Research Institution (CDRI). To ensure survival, many CSOs have merged together to increase their voices and to reduce operational costs. Other CSOs affiliate with other groups by using a formal partnership or other forms of collaboration to achieve common goals. CSOs have been confronted with a shrinking operational space due to the government’s legal framework, particularly in the areas of human rights. As a consequence, both local NGOs and International NGOs have boosted cooperation and relationships, particularly in the areas of agriculture, education, advocacy and human rights. Under the umbrella of CCC and NGOs Forum, CSOs´ members had released a NGO statement voicing concerns over a number of legal issues eroding CSO operations.
The Cambodia National Election is approaching on 27 July, 2018. It is believed that the government will crackdown on all forms of protest or criticism using the excuse of protecting national security and social order. Since civil society’s operating space continues to shrink, CSOs have no choice but to adapt. Hence, CSOs have to find new ways to encourage people to voice their concerns, enhance civil society dialogue and discuss government policies. The government needs to be reminded that CSO voices cannot be easily dismissed. CSOs and the International Community must work together to encourage the government to change its attitude towards CSOs.
The way forward
Since 1993, CSOs have played a crucial development role in Cambodia. CSOs work with different mandates and objectives to accelerate rural development, reduce poverty, achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)/ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and provide constructive criticism of government policy. However, a decade later, the political landscape changed in Cambodia, and CSOs were confronted with various challenges such as reduced funding and a shrinking space due to increased government legal restrictions. Despite the constraints, CSOs have found new ways to generate income and to become more independent from foreign funding. However, in order to remain relevant Cambodian civil society organizations need to cooperate with each other and involve the international civil society community to change government attitudes.
Asian Development Bank (2011): Civil Society Briefs Cambodia.
Prak Chan Thul (19 November, 2017): Defiant Hun Sen tells U.S. to cut all aid to Cambodia.
Sopheap Chak (25 October, 2016): Cambodia´s shrinking political space. In Disrupt and Innovate.
Telecommunication Regulator Cambodia (N/A): Law on Telecommunications.
USAID (2016): 2016 Report on CSO Sustainability Index for Asia.
About the Author:
Soeurth Ker has worked in the development sector with an International non-governmental organisation for almost 10 years. She has extensive experience in finance, administration, and fieldwork. Soeurth has a strong passion for international, regional, and national diplomacy and politics and is always eager to learn. Apart from holding a degree in business and administration, she successfully completed a degree in International studies.
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