PHNOM PENH — NGOs working in democracy, human rights and transparency all say they face a lack of cooperation from Cambodian authorities, especially in the provinces, a new report finds.
The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia conducted research on Cambodia’s overall climate for civil society organizations, finding that those dealing in agriculture or education faced considerably fewer obstacles in their work.
Pressure on other organizations has only increased since the 2013 elections, the report found. Local authorities can make it difficult for NGOs to hold forums and public meetings, or they can bind organizations up in red tape, causing the cancelation of projects. And while local officials may “not even know the laws or working procedures,” the report quoted one source saying: “they just do not allow us to work.”
Since the 2013 elections, government officials are more likely to deploy security forces, such as police or private security, to curb the activities of some NGOs. Some NGO workers reported threats to their offices or their lives, the report found.
Most cases of obstruction or harassment occur for NGOs working in the areas of human rights, justice, corruption or freedom of expression, said El Sotheary, head of programs for the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia. Often such NGOs are misconstrued as working with the opposition, she said.
“They just accuse us as tools of the opposition, even though we work independently,” she said. “We want to work with the government, and we want to make sure both NGOs and the government can work to serve Cambodians.”
The gap between the government and nongovernment agencies is made worse by the lack of a regular, focused meetings between the two sectors, she said. “That’s the reason both sides misunderstand each other.”
NGOs see more pressure applied to their work through legislation, such as the draft law on NGOs, which would further regulate their work and provide more administrative entanglements.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the report’s findings were accurate. Licadho workers in cities and provinces have reported more difficulties in their work, especially in holding public meetings.
“We work to strengthen democracy, so if government officials do something bad, we will report that,” he said. “When you are reporting facts, those officials aren’t happy with that, so they keep their distance from working with us.”
The rights group Adhoc, too, reports similar difficulties. But Ny Chakrya, chief monitor for that group, said government officials will benefit from more open work by NGOs.
“If the government doesn’t make reforms, or tends to help out bad officials, it is the government that will face more criticism by the people, and the international side will not support the government,” he said.
The government itself can benefit from the work of NGOS, as evidenced by other countries, said Kem Ky, an independent political analyst.
“Unlike in Malaysia or Thailand, where the governments invest millions of dollars in NGOs to work on issues that the governments can’t reach, authorities in Cambodia are more likely to be less cooperative with NGOs,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan disagreed with the report’s findings.
“The government is formed by the people, unlike some NGOs, which are formed by money from foreigners,” he said. “Some NGOs tend to work on one side. We always have the door open for discussions and accept recommendations, because we want to create development in the country.”
The CCC report did find that many NGOs do not perform their functions properly. Many fail to accurately file annual reports with the government, and some are simply not active. Of an estimated 3,500 NGOs in the country, only about 1,350 are active, the report found.