The United Nations’ and the international community’s efforts and commitment to assist Cambodia in the first-ever National Election in 1993 after over 2 decades of chronic civil war will never be forgotten by the Cambodian people. The UN-held election in 1993 gave every Cambodian citizen the hope that Cambodia would embark on social and economic development in a democratic way. Eighteen years after the United Nations Transitional Authority and with continued support from the international community including multilateral and bilateral agencies, and NGOs, it is obvious that Cambodia has made great progress in all sectors—health, education, industry, agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, construction, and a lot more.
However, there is a growing concern that Cambodia may not further develop and grow in an equitable and sustainable way as all power in Cambodia seems to be concentrated in the hands of very few people in one dominant political party. Since 1993, parliamentarians have not been elected by the people. People vote for a political party, which in turn determines the list of parliamentarians. The party has the power to fire its members. And when any member of a political party is dismissed, his/her position at the National Assembly is filled by another political party candidate assigned by that political party. Thus, representatives represent their political party but not the people. Ideally, parliamentarians should be elected by the people and should represent the people and their interests. Clearly, this is not the case in Cambodia’s current political context. The role of Civil Society Organizations or Non-governmental Organizations becomes thus even more important. The Cambodian civil society is indispensable to ensure better democratic engagement of citizens and CSOs in all stages of government decision-making including (1) policy/strategy development, (2) joint monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the policy, (3) complementing the public system where there are gaps, and (4) promotion of community participation in good governance to ensure equitable and sustainable growth and development.
Late 2010 the Royal Government of Cambodia started to draft the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organizations. Sadly, so far only one “broader” workshop has taken place with CSOs/NGOs, and only two times small group meetings occurred within the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for the initial drafting of the law. All Cambodian CSOs and NGOs agree that the content of the current 3rd draft of the Law is not acceptable, as it includes bringing CSOs/NGOs under government control and thus jeopardizing their role as independent actors.
The 3rd draft of the legislation, if enacted under its current form, will jeopardize a vibrant civil society sector which is critically needed for ensuring better checks and balances and good governance for equitable and sustainable growth and development of Cambodia. If we allow this critical law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations to be passed without ensuring that the law enables long-term and effective CSO and citizen participation in the growth and development of Cambodia, the UN and the whole international community will have failed miserably, and the more than 2 billion US dollars allocated during UNTAC plus the annual donated funds since 1993 will all have been in vain. No more, no less.