Civil society organizations in Cambodia started in the 1990s. Various agencies that brought about the civic societies in the country include the UN Transitional Authority (UNTC). What followed was a quick expansion of media outlets such radio, foreign, and opposition newspapers. Since then, the country has been experiencing a sharp rise of the CSO community. The primary factors that were attributed to the fast growth included flexibility of the CSO rules and regulations and external funding. The primary functions of civil society organization involve dissemination of health information, societal integration and progression, social authority, and development of marginalized regions among others. This paper explores the rise of the civil society in Cambodia.
Composition of Cambodia Civil Society
The NGO Forum in Cambodia reveals that the principal aims of the existence of the civil society in the country are provision of policy advices, delivery of services, advocacy, facilitation of dialogues, and promotion of social consciences such as human rights (Marston 54).
Agencies such as the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia (CCC) collaborate with various NGOs and donors with a view of monitoring and ensuring the progress of activities such as social welfare and development. Other organizations collaborating with CSOs in the country include the health sector’s MEDICAM that comprises 115 active CSOs and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), which is made up of 21 CSOs dealing with democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in the country (Marston 31).The Cambodia Grassroots People’s Assembly (CGPA) organizes all informal grassroots networks. The informal group comprises diverse members of the society including activists, artists, singers, farmers, and singers among others (Marston 37).International donors fund CSOs in the country. The donors are international NGOs, foundations, or governments (Ung 76).
The Government and Civil Society
The government of Cambodia has a dominant influence on the activities of the country. Due to the significant magnitude of influence, the constitutional laws governing the democratic rights of people do not have full power (Ung87).According to Marston,Cambodia has no legislations governing the operations of CSOs(54). However, the constitution recognizes civil organizations. Despite their legal recognition, no proper guidelines and processes have been set up for registering civil organizations (Marston 54).
Operations of the Civil Society
Some of the recent movements and activities of CSOs and NGOs include calls for NGOs to work in city slums that they described as improper living zones. They are also concerned with excluding the urban poor, women rights activists storming the National Assembly and Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) headquarters demanding for female representation in National Election Committee, pressure to discuss NGOs law in the National Assembly, and the quest for human rights protection among other functions (Marston 23).
However, a significant shortcoming in Cambodia is that people are deprived of various privileges such as autonomous expression of their needs. Marston reveals that the ruling bodies exercise free power over the country’s media outlets (36). The government has also been undermining democracy and constitutional laws through social injustice, land right violations, and killing of activists among others (Marston 37).
Ung posits thatthe influence of the media has been impactful on instigating political and democratic reforms in the country (89). In 2012, the number of Social Media users was 740,000. This figure comprised a large percentage of Facebook users. According to Marston, there are approximately 24 million phone and computer users in Cambodia (56). This situation has facilitated information sharing without government control. For instance, voters share information concerning their political views freely. Moreover, people can mobilize others in an attempt to address social issues such as poverty, democracy, and security among others.
Despite the stringent policies exercised by the CPP, its current state of political influence in the country is declining. This situation is clearly depicted in the increasing popularity of the opposition; Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).This state of play has forced the CPP to form a coalition government with CNRP. However, issues of vote rigging emerged with many Cambodians seeking investigations of the elections (Marston53).A majority of the members who initiate change in the country’s politics are the youth and urban dwellers. Those seeking change raise issues of poverty, corruption, land grabbing, nepotism, and democracy. Their efforts are seen to bear fruits from the remarkable changes in the country’s politics and sprouting democracy (Ung 200).
CSOs in Cambodia and the Democratic Process
The 1993 constitution stipulates the procedural standards that should guide the democratization process in Cambodia. However, the trends in the country’s politics since the end of the civil war indicate a regression as far as attaining a fully operational democracy is concerned. Electoral rigging, impunity and gross abuse of the freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful demonstrations characterize the Cambodian Peoples’ Party’s rule in the country.
As pointed out by Landau, the civil society in Cambodia was foreign donor-led in the recent past (248). Therefore, it was considered to be substantially incapable of exerting pressure on the ruling party. However, things changed with time and the civil society in Cambodia currently has what it takes to pressurize the party and contribute to the consolidation of democracy in the country.
Recent Activities of CSOs in Cambodia
Through the help of the country’s NGOs and the Cooperative Committee for Cambodia (CCC), the civil society in Cambodia has been involved in coordinated action which indicates that the sector is capable of impacting change in the political spheres. As such, the society has been involved in activities aimed at handling the concerns raised by the Cambodian people over issues of good governance and land-related problems.
As pointed out by Frewer, the Cambodian civil society has been exerting a considerable amount of pressure to the government to ensure accountability and to prohibit the anti-democratic policies of the Cambodian People’s Party in the recent past (99). For instance, the civil society played a significant role in putting pressure on legislators to vote against a potentially undemocratic law against the country’s NGOs.
The operating environment of CSOs in Cambodia
The current CPP government has had a reputation of intimidating the country’s civil society through the use of the law and other extra-judicial measures. Victimization, harassment, and intimidation of the civil society members remain rife under the current CPP government (Frewer 98). 2012 was considered the year in which the country experienced the worst human rights record in the recent times. Ever since, the environment for civil society operations has deteriorated reaching a climax in 2013 after the highly disputed elections that saw Hun Sen re-elected as the country’s prime minister keeping him in power since 1985 (Sen 7).
International observers, the civil society, and the opposition raised concerns over serious malpractices and irregularities during the elections. Ever since, the civil society has been at loggerheads with the government over the manipulation of democracy and has been at the center of all the major protests taking place in the nation. Together with the media and the opposition, the civil society in Cambodia has been criticizing the government through protests, strikes, and a political deadlock (Landau 247).
The ruling party is accused of the increasing civil, social, and political problems in the country. Corruption is rampant in Cambodia and CPP manipulates key institutions such as the royal family and the judiciary. Forced evictions of citizens following land grabbing by influential private developers in the very watch of the government add to the list of grievances raised by the civil society in Cambodia. Despite that the 1993 constitution protects the freedoms of association, expression, and assembly, the CPP government has been undermining them considering the treatment they accord to the country’s civil society.
The government has been steadily neglecting the need for discussions with the civil society as far as its policies are concerned. Through restrictive laws passed by the government, the activities of civil society members remain greatly threatened. For instance, as claimed by Frewer, the recent Laws on Associations and NGOs (LANGO) present new avenues for the government to continue intimidating the members of civil society organizations (102). The autonomy and independence of these organizations are significantly threatened as the legislation accords the government oversight powers over both the registration and the activities of the civil society organizations. As such, the abilities of the civil society to criticize the ruling party in the future are likely to be significantly hindered.
The internet presented an important platform on which the civil society in Cambodia organized its activities and mobilized citizens during protests. This privilege was interfered with in 2012 after the government introduced its cyber law. The law was aimed at controlling people’s use of the internet and social media especially when it comes to critical expressions. The government cited that the purpose of introducing the law was to prevent the spread of malicious information through the internet although it was a mere scapegoat (Sen 6). The drafted law remained totally out of public domain until it was passed.
As a way of disenabling the operating environment for civil society groups in Cambodia, CPP has also been employing extra-legal methods to silence the civil society organizations. Abduction of protest leaders, torture, and forceful migration of people are some of the tactics that the government currently employs. Even though, the civil society in Cambodia has been exerting pressure on the government despite the disenabling environment it has existed in since 2012. The desperation portrayed by CPP in enacting restrictive legislation is proof that the critical voice of the civil society in Cambodia is being heard by the government.
In reality, the growth of the civil society and NGOs working for democracy has posed a significant threat to the ruling party. The impact of media has also contributed to the situation immensely. Although the government seeks to control the flow of information to citizens, it is only limited to TV and radio stations. Most Cambodians have embraced the media due to the increased number of internet and mobile subscribers. The measures have initiated a political and democratic reform. Therefore, there is a probability of changing some of their stringent policies that undermine the constitutional laws on human rights and democracy due to the mounting pressure on CPP.
Frewer, Thomas. “Doing NGO Work: The Politics of being ‘Civil Society’ and Promoting ‘Good Governance’ in Cambodia,” Australian Geographer, 44. 1, (2013), 97-114. Print.
Landau, Ian. “Law and Civil Society in Cambodia and Vietnam: A Gramscian Perspective”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38. 2, (2008), 244-258. Print.
Marston, John. Anthropology And Community In Cambodia: Reflections On The Work Of May Ebihara. Victoria, Australia: Monash Asia Institute, 2011. Web.
Sen, Vin. “Social Capital in an Urban and a Rural Community in Cambodia,” Cambodia Development Review, 16. 3, (2014), 6-10. Print.
Ung, Loung. First They killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia remembers. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2006. Web.