The Cambodian Embassy in London has called on foreign governments to cut funding to the Britain-based forestry watchdog Global Witness, according to a statement received Thursday.
The statement, dated Monday, accuses the environmental group of defaming government officials “with a motivated intention to discredit the image of the Royal Government of Cambodia and its leaders.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday also said Global Witness’ claims of massive corruption were unfounded.
Generating a wave of international news coverage, Global Witness last week published a voluminous report accusing Cambodian officials and their kin, some with blood ties to the prime minister, of criminality and wholesale environmental destruction.
“[T]he Royal Embassy of Cambodia strongly urges the governments of Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden and UK to reconsider their support in funding Global Witness in the future in order to get a real picture of their direction and policy as a non-governmental organization,” according to the statement issued by the chancery in northwest London’s Willesden Green.
The statement referred to the report, entitled “Cambodia’s Family Trees,” as “groundless, unacceptable rubbish.”
“The harmful report…clearly show[s] the political motivation and grudge for being sacked from Cambodia in 2005 by the government of Cambodia and from being banned from entering Cambodia,” the statement added.
The government on Sunday announced it would ban the report and seize all copies. Officials and individuals named in the report have also strongly denied any wrongdoing.
Global Witness closed its Phnom Penh office in 2005 after international staffers were barred from entering Cambodia and local employees reported receiving threats.
That year, customs officials at Phnom Penh International Airport also seized 2,000 copies of a critical report by the group.
Speaking at a conference on Cambodia’s financial sector, Hun Sen also addressed the forestry NGO’s claims on Thursday.
“Please don’t look at someone’s stopped clock and tell me what time it is,” he said. “Global Witness’ clock is wrong.”
In addition to the countries named in Monday’s statement, Global Witness is also funded by a long list of charitable trusts and development organizations such as US billionaire-philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the US-based Conrad N Hilton and Ford foundations, as well as the Dutch charity Oxfam Novib.
Global Witness Director Simon Taylor said his organization had no political agenda and was confident the embassy’s statement would not affect funding to the organization.
Global Witness was reporting the facts as they found them, he said by telephone from London.
“And we’re doing that in a non-partisan way,” he said. “If [former prime minister Prince Norodom] Ranariddh were in power, we’d be saying the same thing.”
“After 12 years of investigation, our conclusion is that Cambodia’s natural resources have formed little better than a cash cow for the country’s elite,” he said.
“Frankly, it’s none of the Cambodian government’s business who funds us,” he said, adding that he doubted donors would reduce funding. “If they did so on the basis of this, I have to say I’d be disappointed in their integrity.”
Global Witness has not been contacted by any of the countries named in Monday’s letter, he said.
The British Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment.
However, Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie said her government had in the past enjoyed good working relations with Global Witness. “I am prepared to say that we’ve worked with Global Witness on the conflict diamonds issue and we’ve found our cooperation with them to be useful and we generally see them as a credible organization,” she said.
Pottie declined to comment on funding for the group or the allegations in their latest report.
The Phnom Penh office of Sweden’s development agency referred calls to the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm, where officials could not be reached Thursday.
Departing German Ambassador Pius Fischer said on Thursday that illegal logging was widespread in Cambodia.
“About the Global Witness report, I think it’s an open secret that illegal logging is a problem in Cambodia,” he told a roundtable discussion on German views of Cambodia’s politics and economy at Phnom Penh’s Sunway Hotel.
Fischer said he was struck by the sound of chainsaws when spending the night atop Phnom Aural, a mountain within a 254,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary spanning Koh Kong, Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces.
“Every map says it’s a protected area. We could actually hear the sound of chainsaws in the forest,” he said. “So illegal logging is going on almost everywhere. In the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, Virachey National Park [in Ratanakkiri province],” he said.
Fischer did take note of a requested probe into Global Witness’ accusations by forestry monitor Societe General de Surveillance.
“I think my recommendation would be to take such allegations serious, to start an investigation,” he said. “I think confiscation of the report doesn’t resolve the problem.”
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)