Questions linger as top NGO official bows out

Source: Phnom Penh Post |Wed, 7 September 2016, by

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Former CHRAC secretary-general Suon Bunsak (centre) attends a compensation meeting earlier this year in Kampong Speu. Photo supplied

Bringing to a close a controversial tenure, Suon Bunsak resigned yesterday as secretary-general of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC), the NGO’s acting chair In Kea confirmed.

“He submitted the resignation letter to the steering committee . . . the reason is that he’s very tired,” Kea said.

Bunsak could not be reached yesterday, but his resignation comes amid allegations that in 2015 he attempted to solicit a bribe from then-CHRAC consultant Billy Tai in return for favourable working conditions.

Tai shared text messages that would appear to corroborate the allegation first with CHRAC donor Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and later with the Post after what he views as NPA’s failure to take action.

NPA country director Aksel Steen-Nilsen declined to comment yesterday.

Ou Virak, president of think tank Future Forum, said he was not surprised to hear of corruption allegations within CHRAC, given what he described as a lack of oversight exacerbated in recent months by the absence of CHRAC chair Thun Saray.

“There’s a lot personal connections more than anything else. There’s no systematic governance; it’s all decisions made by the chair. Bunsak used to work for Saray and that sort of hierarchy creates a patronage system a bit like the government,” Virak said, adding that it may be time for Saray to step down as chair.

Saray disputed Virak’s claim that CHRAC lacked oversight in an email last night, but did say that Adhoc will soon offer to relinquish the chair.

Naly Pilorge, deputy advocacy director at rights group Licadho, said the power of the chair to overrule the steering committee – particularly in hiring matters – was one of the key reasons for her organisation’s decision to withdraw from CHRAC roughly a decade ago.

“I think donors are to blame, too,” Virak said, noting that donors are often wary of broaching corruption issues out of public relations concerns.

One staff member at a Phnom Penh-based international NGO, who asked not be named as they were not authorised to speak to media, called it “extremely alarming” that NPA decided to continue funding CHRAC with Bunsak at the helm if the donor had “documentary evidence” of corrupt practices.

Tai, meanwhile, said that he felt donor responses to issues within CHRAC “has been to trying to sweep it under the rug and hope it goes away”.

“There needs to be an attitude change in this sector,” Tai said. “There needs to be an acknowledgement that the one who’s doing the wrong is responsible, not the person who talks about it.”

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