Under Pressure, NGO Coalition Seeks Closer Ties With Government

An NGO coalition launched a program to collaborate more closely with the government on Wednesday, a week after an Interior Ministry spokesman admitted to threatening several organizations in order to “scare” them ahead of commune elections.

The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), an NGO member group with over 100 NGO partners, launched the program with a $1.68-million grant from the E.U. The announcement took place at Phnom Penh’s Cambodiana Hotel, with a ceremony attended by E.U. Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar and Interior Ministry undersecretary of state Ngan Chamroeun.

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Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, left, gestures during a press conference at the ministry’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Friday to announce the preliminary results of a probe into the veracity of the thumbprints on a CNRP petition. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Across town, five current and former workers from rights group Adhoc woke up to their 412th day in prison, while land rights activist Tep Vanny languished in incarceration for the 303rd day. The prisoners face legal battles that local and international human rights organizations have called politically motivated and lacking in due process.

Those cases did not stop the CCC from presenting Mr. Chamroeun with a letter of appreciation on Wednesday, after the Interior Ministry official also gave a speech encouraging NGOs to work more closely with the government.

“While civil society may represent specific interest groups…it does not represent the citizens,” Mr. Chamroeun said.

Mr. Edgar also gave a short speech praising the work of the CCC and touting the E.U.’s continued commitment to Cambodian civil society organizations.

CCC executive director Soeung Saroeun said the problems between the government and civil society highlighted the need for more cooperation.

“The more we work separately, the more challenges we face,” Mr. Saroeun said in an interview on Wednesday. “We at CCC try to build trust that civil society is not working against the government—we are working to support the government.”

He added that some of the tensions between the government and civil society could be attributed to a lack of trust.

“That’s why if we continue to take our hands off…we enlarge the gaps of the trust, and at the end of the day, Cambodia cannot move anywhere—only fighting, and arresting, and pointing.”

The E.U.’s $1.68 million would go toward projects that involve government, civil society and private-sector organizations, Mr. Saran said, and comes at a time of belt-tightening among civil society groups.

Donor funding for NGOs has decreased by as much as 15 percent from 2014, according to Mr. Saroeun, as donor nations have dealt with refugee crises at home and Cambodia has moved from a low-income to a lower-middle income country.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Soeung Saroeun.

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