The Foreign Affairs Ministry met with two non-governmental groups yesterday and accused them of inciting families to oppose the rehabilitation of the Cambodian rail system, ordering the NGOs to “readjust” their work.
The meeting comes on the heels of the government’s suspension of land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut over its work protecting families who face eviction as a result of the same railway project.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said his ministry invited Bridges Across Borders Cambodia and the NGO Forum, an umbrella group of organizations, to the meeting to complain about a 2010 report in which the groups blamed the recent deaths of two children on a government project to relocate those evicted by the railway rehabilitation.
In November, Bridges Across Borders and other NGOs said the children, a brother and sister, died after drowning in a pond in Battambang province while fetching water because the government-run relocation site lacked proper utilities.
Mr Kuong dismissed the charge and accused both Bridges and NGO Forum of incitement.
“This is called an inciting act,” he said of the NGOs claims of government culpability in the deaths. “The [brother and sister] deaths are not because of the government.”
By making that claim, he said, Secretary of State Uch Borith told the NGOs they had violated the conditions of their memoranda of understanding with the government.
Representatives for the two groups could not be reached yesterday for comment.
The ministry’s rebuke of the NGOs comes only weeks after the government’s crackdown on land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which had signed on to the November statement about the drowned siblings.
On Aug 1, the Interior Ministry sent Sahmakum a letter ordering it to suspend work for five months, citing its failure to notify the government of personnel changes and making some requested corrections to its paperwork.
Forty NGOs protested with a joint statement, calling the suspension a thinly veiled move to punish Sahmakum for its advocacy on behalf of the families situated in the railway project’s path.
Days later, the Interior Ministry issued its own statement against the protest letter, adding yet another reason for the suspension.
In shades of the language the Foreign Affairs Ministry used with Bridges and the NGO Forum yesterday, it accused Sahmakum of inciting the families into opposing the rail project.
Unlike Sahmakum, though, Bridges and the NGO Forum got off with some “advice.”
“His Excellency Uch Borith gave advice to both NGOs to readjust their work in order to work closely with the government,” Mr Kuong said.
The spokesman said he was not at the meeting and did not know whether the NGOs were warned with any punitive measures if they failed to comply. Mr Borith could not be reached for comment.
Australian state aid agency AusAid—which is helping fund the railway rehabilitation project along with the Asian Development Bank—has declined to comment on Sahmakum’s suspension and could not immediately be reached yesterday.
Breaking its own public silence in a statement yesterday, the ADB stood by the NGOs, praising the work they were doing with and for the resettled families.
“ADB views recent developments with the utmost seriousness, and has met with STT, BABC [Bridges] and the Royal Government about the situation,” it said.
“ADB is fully committed to working with NGOs, civil society and the Royal Government to ensure ADB’s safeguard policies are upheld during the implementation of all ADB-financed projects.
“ADB believes the NGOs and civil society play an important role in the successful implementation of development projects, and hopes that NGOs will be allowed to continue their work on the railway project,” it added.
Sahmakum’s suspension and yesterday’s warning to the NGOs comes amid the Council of Ministers’ pending passage of a controversial draft law aiming to regulate the country’s non-government groups. Hundreds of NGOs have issued a joint statement warning that the government could use the law’s vague language to shut down groups it dislikes.