Cambodia Stands for Courage

In a nondescript alley in the middle of Phnom Penh, I arrived at The Solidarity House under whose roof several civil society groups take shelter and carry on with promoting the interests and welfare of Cambodia’s poor men and women. The fatal shooting of the political activist Kem Ley on 10 July was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and I wondered what this meant to civil society actors in Cambodia. I climbed the steep stairs until I reached the top floor, a bit out of breath but pleased to see a gathering of civil society leaders, including a few outspoken and feisty women. On that warm morning, we sat around a table eating platefuls of mangosteen and chatted about what young Cambodians, farmers, informal workers, women and civil servants thought of the future of their country.

Talking about the future reminded me of the past, and I am struck by how different Phnom Penh is today. It has more high-rises, more expensive Western brands, more motorcycles, more new cars. Overall, the city is busier and certainly less dusty. But a lot more goes on beneath the surface, and this reflects in Oxfam’s work.

Oxfam has been in Cambodia for more than 30 years, starting in 1979 with post-conflict humanitarian work. Over the years, we shifted to long-term community development. Back in 2004, I met staff members who were survivors of the Khmer Rouge, hardworking and diligent at delivering our programme but reticent. Today, our team has very articulate and assertive young people, sharply analytical and astute advocates. They have to be to adapt to a shifting context and to the fact that despite the pressures, Cambodian civil society is gaining strength and pushing against the limits to expand the space for voices to be heard.

‘We have to continue the dialogue between the people, the government and other stakeholders. We have to keep building the capacity of the grassroots so they can think, speak up and act for themselves. Our NGOs have to work and support each other as a network. We have to change the perception that we are the opposition. We have to remain non-violent in our active promotion of human rights. We have to find a way because people are still moving forward.’

To persist knowing that possible consequences can be dire is courage. Our partners are getting on with their work with eyes wide open and clear from the tears they shed for the death of Kem Ley and the arrest of other NGO workers. ‘Wipe your tears, continue your journey,’ Kem Ley said.

As their partner, so must we and we have to choose a path that enables us to help increase the power of ordinary Cambodians to meaningfully participate in policy development and decision-making, and to hold the government and those with authority and influence accountable for their actions. Our partners are counting on us to bring together civil society, the government and the private sector and facilitate their interactions. They rely on our work so that people can have a fair share in natural resources, to obtain adequate social protection and be resilient. We must help strengthen our partners’ organisations so that their voices could be further amplified while also sustaining the solidarity from international actors.

Given recent events that impinged on civil society space, I thought Cambodia would leave me heartbroken. I’m happy to be wrong. I left inspired by the courage of our partners, stronger in my belief that the challenges can be overcome and people will win against the injustice of poverty and inequality.