More than 100 nongovernmental organizations gathered in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday, calling on donor countries to make further aid conditional on government reforms for a more transparent electoral process and efficient judicial system.
They made the call ahead of a key meeting on Wednesday between donors and the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has been accused of human rights abuses.
Eight international NGOs also submitted a joint letter demanding that donors do more to protect Cambodia’s human rights activists, a number of whom are facing various charges or have been detained by authorities in recent months.
Three NGOs will be allowed to attend the Government-Donor Coordination Committee Meeting on Wednesday, which will focus on development issues.
The last such meeting was last held in 2010 when donors pledged U.S. $1.1 billion—or half of Cambodia’s annual budget—in assistance to the government. The civil society groups want donors to use their financial pull to sway policy in Phnom Penh.
Phouk Panhavicheat of Forum on Cambodia, which monitors economic aid to Cambodia, told RFA’s Khmer service that the recommendations from the NGOs which met Tuesday in the capital were based on independent studies concerning “development loopholes” in the country.
She said that the government should better implement existing laws while increasing checks and balances in order to promote democracy and “to enable constructive criticism … [for] good governance.”
Specifically, the NGOs requested that the government reform the National Election Committee (NEC), which organizes and manages polls, in order to ensure its independence.
The NEC has been accused by rights groups and opposition parties of bias toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled the country for three decades.
Cambodia’s opposition parties have been calling for independent members on the NEC, whose headquarters is situated in the Ministry of the Interior compound.
But officials say that a series of reforms since 1998 has made the committee “more efficient” and that further changes are unnecessary.
Judiciary and resources
The group of NGOs also called on Cambodia to produce new laws surrounding the status of government prosecutors and judges. Critics have frequently accused the country’s judicial system of lacking independence and say that court officials need an environment where they can “work more efficiently.”
In addition, the NGOs recommended that the government reform its national land policy and devise a plan to better manage revenues derived from the country’s natural resources.
Land disputes are an everyday occurrence in Cambodia, where rights groups say some 300,000 people have been forced off their land over the past decade.
The government has granted millions of hectares of land in concessions to private developers, in some cases pitting residents against developers and sparking protests.
No government representatives attended Tuesday’s NGO meeting, but Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan called the recommendations “politically motivated,” without providing further details.
He said that proposed changes to the NEC were unnecessary and that previous reforms had addressed failings in the electoral body ahead of national elections in July 2013.
“We have already reformed the NEC a few times,” he said. “We are working to ensure an effective election process.”
In their open letter, the eight international NGOs called on donor countries to “take timely and decisive action regarding the human rights abuses perpetrated by” the government.
Among the signatories were New York-based Human Rights Watch, Washington media watchdog Freedom House, and London’s Global Witness, which monitors natural resource conflicts.
Specifically, the letter urged donors to ensure that their assistance goes towards strengthening the country’s democracy, rule of law, and human rights, which it said are “demonstrably compromised.”
“We strongly urge donors not to endorse and reward the actions of the [government] through a large-scale injection of new funds, but instead to make a coordinated and public condemnation of the government’s increasing human rights abuses,” the letter said.
“[International aid] must also be based on the achievement of concrete reforms in natural resource governance, in particular in the land sector.”
The letter also demanded that all charges against journalist Mam Sonando and rights activists Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony are withdrawn and that they are released immediately.
Mam Sonando, the director of Cambodia's independent Beehive Radio station, was arrested in Phnom Penh in July on charges he was behind a May land revolt and ensuing bloody clashes in Kratie province’s Chhlong district as part of secessionist plans.
Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony, two prominent female land rights activists, were arrested on Sept. 4 and 5, respectively, on what the letter described as “questionable allegations.” Both women had taken part in protests against forced evictions in the capital.
“Ensuring just outcomes for the Sonando, Bopha, and Sakmony trials is a start, and will set an important precedent for future cases and, more generally, the protection of human rights in the country,” the letter said.
The NGOs called the situation “urgent” in Cambodia in light of the recent killings of environmentalist Chut Wutty and journalist Hang Serei Oudom.
In April, environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot and killed while he accompanied two reporters from the Cambodia Daily to investigate illegal logging claims in a protected forest region.
The reporter, Hang Serei Oudom, was looking into claims of illegal logging and extortion when he went missing on Sept. 10. His battered body was found two days later in the trunk of his car.
The letter noted that Cambodia is up for consideration for membership on Oct. 18 for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and that, regionally, the government is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a time when it is about to adopt the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in November.
“Financial commitments made to the [government] should take into account the rights and freedoms of all Cambodians, or they risk sending an implicit message of approval of the [government’s] actions,” the letter said.
“We respectfully request the international donor community to take a path that reminds [the government] of its international obligations.”
Reported by Sok Serey for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.