NGOs get it wrong, again

[Published in the Cambodia Herald on 13 March 2015.]

When the governing and opposition parties agreed on the text of a new election law at the end of February, most Cambodians probably felt relief that the long-running disagreements over electoral procedures appeared to be at an end. But not everyone.

In less than 48 hours, a collection of so-called non-government organisations operating under the name Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) had attacked the electoral reform agreement at a public “discussion” staged for the benefit of the media. This event was held on Monday, 2 March. A week later, the same NGOs boycotted a public workshop on the draft laws, complaining that they hadn’t been given a copy until Saturday, 7 March.

This raises an obvious question: Did the ERA criticise the agreement without knowing what it consisted of, or was it lying when it said it didn’t know what was in the draft laws until 7 March?

In fact, although the leading organisations of the ERA are critical of a few specific provisions in the draft laws, what mainly bothers them is the fact that the CPP and CNRP didn’t include them as equal partners in their negotiations. Their annoyance is explained by some recent history.

The NGOs of the ERA like to portray themselves as especially knowledgeable about democracies and elections. After the July 2013 general election, they put out a glossy booklet intended to discredit the election. This project was mainly organised and funded by the National Democratic Institute, a pretend NGO from the United States that is actually funded by the US government.

The ERA election booklet was a mish-mash of accusations designed to support the CNRP claim that it had somehow been cheated of victory, using arguments that were generally false, illogical and/or mutually contradictory. (For my detailed rebuttal of it, see Still, it was a determined effort to make something out of nothing, and leading NGOs of the ERA obviously thought that the CNRP owed them something in return.

So when the CNRP failed to give the ERA a de facto veto over the agreement with the CPP, the NGO leaders felt betrayed. (The claim that they weren’t “consulted” is nonsense. Throughout the course of the negotiations, what had and hadn’t been agreed was regularly reported in the media, and NGO leaders’ views on such questions were quoted in the press and, presumably, delivered privately to at least one of the parties.)

More than betrayed, the NGO leaders must have felt threatened. If the members of the National Assembly and the Senate discuss, debate, negotiate and pass laws as happens in most countries that have a parliamentary system, what does that mean for NGOs that have spent the last two decades elevating themselves into the role of “watchdogs” over the government? If the government and opposition can agree on the conduct of elections, and on other legislation, it will start to look to many people that a watchdog isn’t really needed. Even some of the people who now fund NGOs might start to think that way!

And – horror of horrors! – it seems that the CNRP agreed to a provision that NGOs not be allowed to attack political parties during election campaigns. If foreign organisations and governments are no longer able to fund NGO attacks on a party they dislike, they might shift their contributions from NGOs to an organisation that is allowed to criticise: i.e., another political party.

But what I found most striking about the statements of ERA leaders regarding the electoral laws was their obvious assumption that they have a right – one not shared by most Cambodian voters – to demand that members of the National Assembly take instruction from them. It’s as though they think Cambodia has a three-house parliament: National Assembly, Senate and NGO Assembly.

Fortunately, they’re wrong about that.

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