Hey, you wanna can of worms? Elizabeth Becker, journalist and long-time Cambodia watcher, including author of When the War Was Over, recently opened one, when she criticized the new draft NGO law in Cambodia, shortly to become, in all likelihood, enacted law. In that letter, titled, “Silencing Cambodia’s Honest Brokers,” she identifies NGOs as among the last of Cambodia’s ‘honest brokers,’ and places the entire story in the somewhat personal framework of her witness to the important Paris Peace Agreement.
I happen to think she’s right to be critical of the NGO law. Like it’s evil twin, the draft law on Unions, the NGO law gives the government unilateral powers of complete authority over the charters and actions of NGOs, giving the government increased ability to silence and decharter critical NGOs for poorly-defined criteria. But she’s also guilty of some hyperbole: apparently equating NGOs with all of ‘civil society,’ ignoring the deeply problematic aspects of the NGO sector in Cambodia, and ignoring the forms of resistance that Cambodians themselves, rather than the NGO sector per se, routinely take in their own interests.
It’s hard, however, to know exactly what Allen Myers is so angry about. When you read his “Elizabeth Becker and the Campaign to Put NGOs above the Law,” you suspect personal association, long history, and the continuing effects of the Cold War, which turned so many brilliant minds into narrow, willfully ideological partisans, for so long. Myers, with several writings on Cambodia, is connected to the Cambodian government via Helen Jarvis, to whom he is married, and seems to take Becker’s critique of the draft law as an assertion that NGOs be subject to no laws at all. Although Becker’s writing is strangely framed, she does not appear to argue that position.
But it is the framing that seems to attract Myers’ ire. He goes on to attack Becker’s support for the Paris Peace Process in a terribly petty manner, pointing out that the 1993 adoption of that plan had nothing, legally-speaking, to do with the 1991 meetings which formed the plan. This is petty behavior indeed. While Becker’s ignorance of local Cambodian activities and agency may justify his irritation, Cambodians are no better served by yet another foreigner arguing in bad faith about Cambodia. It seems to me that Cambodians have had quite enough of foreign academics building their careers and enacting their personal vendettas while using and distorting Cambodia, and no further distortions are really necessary, thanks. To waste print space on such a technical point is frankly insulting.
Becker responded, in her “Response to Anonymous Critique by Elizabeth Becker,” that her emphasis on the Paris process was that it finally began the process of severing the reconstituted Khmer Rouge and other guerilla fighters from their cold war funders – an important point, though hardly the one she was stressing in her initial offering. But Myers’ response does nothing to improve the situation, and furthers the hyperbole and shallow point-scoring of his earlier, apparently accidentally anonymous, critique.
In this second response, “Elizabeth Becker’s Evasive Response,” Myers identifies himself, and makes a series of strong claims which are nearly as hyperbolic in their refutation of Becker’s points, as Becker’s characterization was. Certainly the law does not make the NGOs official or unofficial arms of the government. To claim that it does is hyperbole on Becker’s part. To argue that there are no serious constraints, vague criteria for enactment, and an assumption of beneficently-wielded executive authority in the draft law is simply silly. Such arguments may fly in the USA when enacting something like the PATRIOT Act, but certainly we’re paying closer attention in Cambodia?
And he’s harping on the Paris Peace Agreement point again, seeing it as diagnostic of her tendency to inaccuracy generally. Drawing a straw man out of Becker’s references, Myers assiduously attacks that straw man, pointing out her inaccuracies in a lengthy fisking that would make a junior-high school debate contestant a bit embarrassed. He wraps up by accusing Becker of condescending and ignoring Cambodians. By playing the nativist card, Myers apparently hopes to invoke a worthy sense of historical guilt on the part of the European-descended Becker and her readership, and thereby obscure the divisions that Becker is attempting to highlight: the division between the Cambodian people in general, and the corrupt crony-class that rules the country and dominates its government.
These laws are terribly important to Cambodia’s short-term – and potentially long-term – future, and it would be nice to have the benefit of long-time watchers’ experience and knowledge; maybe next time.