An NGO hatchet job

[Not involving Phnom Penh papers, this was published in Asia Times Online (from Thailand) on October 31. The article of Ou Virak to which it responds can be read at http://atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/MJ28Ae01.html.%5D

Ou Virak’s “Cambodia’s unrealized peace promise” (October 28) is remarkably long on inflated rhetoric and remarkably short on specifics. Where it deigns to mention specifics, it mostly gets them wrong.

The Royal Government of Cambodia “has routinely flouted many of the covenants it has ratified”, according to Ou Virak. For example? No examples are mentioned. The government has “waged a sustained legislative and administrative campaign to control every aspect of the Cambodian people’s lives”. Such as? No specifics are given. “[T]hose wanting to speak openly and protest peacefully [are] increasingly stifled by legislative and judicial means.” Who, where, when? Ou Virak doesn’t tell us.

When he acknowledges achievements of the RGC, he does so only to deny or belittle them at the same time. These achievements are “on paper”: So, apparently, Cambodia didn’t really join ASEAN or develop its economy etc. Worse yet, Ou Virak manages to portray “the ultimate disintegration of the Khmer Rouge” as part of the Paris Agreements; it seems the post-1991 years of civil war and the eventual triumph of the RGC’s “win-win” strategy were all just “on paper”.

Ou Virak even tries to blame the RGC for the fact that Cambodia doesn’t have “a viable political opposition”. Should the Cambodian People’s Party put up unpopular candidates, or advocate unpopular policies, to give the opposition a better opportunity? And it is not true that opposition leader Sam Rainsy “is in exile fleeing a raft of politically-motivated criminal charges”. He is fleeing convictions related to illegally pulling up border posts recently placed by the Cambodia-Vietnam border demarcation body.

In 2008, a major theme of the Sam Rainsy Party’s election campaign was the false claim that the government was giving Cambodian territory to Vietnam. Wisely, most voters weren’t convinced. Sam Rainsy could have continued raising his views in the National Assembly and in his party’s print and electronic propaganda, but that wasn’t getting anywhere. On the other hand, committing a punishable offense might get him sentenced and allow him to pretend that the issue was “human rights” rather than trying to override the elected government.

One “example” that Ou Virak does mention is the new Penal Code, which “maintains” disinformation and defamation “as criminal offenses punishable by prison terms”. Readers whose only source of information is Ou Virak will be surprised to learn that the Code was not drafted by a subcommittee of the Cambodian People’s Party with instructions to suppress human rights. It was prepared over many years by French legal advisors as part of French development assistance. Furthermore, the reason the new Code “maintains” these provisions is that they were contained in the Interim Code brought in by UNTAC in 1992 as part of the Paris Peace Agreements. Now Ou Virak cites the maintenance of legislation created by the Paris Agreements as a reason that signatories of those agreements should exert “economic and political leverage” on the RGC!

The few other examples or specifics are not much better. The RGC has “allowed the wealth gap” to “widen alarmingly”. It is likely that economic inequality has increased in the last 20 years. This is an almost universal phenomenon when an economy starts to grow from an extremely low base, such as Cambodia’s was in 1991.

How wide is the “alarming” gap today? On the Gini index of family income, in which 0 represents perfect equality and 100 complete inequality, Cambodia’s rating is 43, less equal than Indonesia (37) or Russia (42.2), the same as Thailand and more equal than Malaysia (44.1), the Philippines (45.8), Mexico (48.2) and Brazil (56.7). Cambodia is also more equal than the United States, whose Gini index of income is 45.

And of course Ou Virak has to devote a paragraph to distorting the planned law on non-government organizations. Ou Virak to the contrary, this law is not the “latest” attempt to do anything, having been in preparation since 2003 and having gone through several processes of public input and discussion with NGOs. The draft law is still under consideration, but there is nothing in the latest publicly released draft “allowing for arbitrary administrative sanctions”.

Ou Virak and a minority of NGOs claim that if the law requires NGOs to register, this will mean the end of freedom of expression and freedom of association. They don’t seem to notice that the requirement for publications to register hasn’t prevented more than 500 magazines and newspapers existing today. In Cambodia and most countries, all sorts of organizations and activities are required to register: medical clinics, political parties, private schools, banks, restaurants, pre-schools, labor unions, businesses. There are presently more than 3000 voluntarily registered NGOs in the country, so registration as such can’t be too burdensome.

Furthermore, Ou Virak neglects to inform his readers that on October 27, the day before his article appeared, the deputy director of political affairs of the Ministry of the Interior told a public conference that mandatory registration would be dropped from the fourth draft of the law. Of course, revealing that might have undermined the claim that the law is part of a campaign to jail anyone who dares to “criticize the RGC’s personalities, policies and actions.”

One other fact that Ou Virak neglects to impart is the history of his own organization, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. In 2002, after a career as a Funcinpec member of the National Assembly and then the Senate, Kem Sokha announced his retirement from politics to establish the CCHR —with a grant of US$450,000 from the US government, channeled through the International Republican Institute. In subsequent years, a host of Western governments and semi-government organizations provided funding, particularly for “public forum” projects.

In 2008, Kem Sokha decided to return to politics by launching the Human Rights Party. In the United States and other countries that outlaw foreign contributions to political parties, that history would invite close scrutiny of whether the NGO was acting as a cover for illegal contributions. In the Cambodia of ever increasing “restrictive laws”, such contributions are not illegal. Still, this may explain why some NGOs are worried about a law calling on them to disclose their sources of income and expenditures.

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