Letter Reveals Minister’s Ire With NGOs

Prime Minister Hun Sen re­ceived a proposal from Finance Minister Keat Chhon in June seeking to bar “foreign NGOs” from advocacy work in Cam­bo­dia, as well as preventing foreigners from working with local advocacy groups because of acti­vism around the rehabilitation of the nation’s railway, according to a news report on Monday from Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

According to a June 17 letter to Mr Hun Sen, Mr Chhon claimed that the government was advised to act against advocacy NGOs by a consultant working for the Asian Development Bank, which is funding the bulk of a $141.6 million railway rehabilitation project that is expected to resettle thousands of poor families living along the tracks.

“The ADB consultant had drawn the attention of the government of­ficials to be careful with these NGOs and requested the government to take immediate action on this group of ignorant foreign NGOs because de­velopment partner ADB is also un­der political pressure caused by these NGOs,” according to a copy of the minister’s letter ob­tained yesterday by The Cam­bodia Daily.

The call, reported by DPA, to ban foreigners from working in advocacy could not be made out from the photocopy of the letter.

Mr Chhon, however, does complain in the letter about the “difficult conditions” the ADB was setting for the government regarding assistance to the families earmarked for eviction, and which Mr Chhon accuses of illegally squatting on state land.

Families living on railway tracks, he argues, the government could fine and jail under Cambodia’s land law, let alone help to resettle.

“Actually, the possession of public and state land illegally (sidewalks of national roads or railways) is subject to punishment according to the law,” the letter states.

“[N]GOs have used the soft policy of ADB to put additional pressure on us by creating tools behind the policy to confuse the people, which created obstacles and blocks to the implementation of this project,” he wrote.

Officials at the Finance Ministry could not be reached for comment. Copies of the minister’s letter were sent to the Council of Ministers and Foreign Ministry, but spokesmen at both ministries said they had no knowledge of the document.

ADB Country Director Putu Kamayana said that the Bank had not seen the letter but had no evidence the ADB consultant had given the minister advice to act against NGOs involved in advocacy around the railway rehabilitation project.

However, the media report of the letter’s existence and the allegations it contains prompted the ADB to investigate, Mr Kamayana said.

“Given the seriousness of the allegations, ADB conducted a thorough internal investigation and did not find any evidence to substantiate inappropriate conduct by an ADB consultant.”

Mr Kamayana again praised the work that NGOs had done checking the railway project’s compliance with the Bank’s ethics standards.

“ADB is committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure ADB’s safeguard policies are upheld in the implementation of the railway rehabilitation project,” he said.

“The NGOs have provided useful information about the resettlement process which has help[ed] us to address the needs of the people affected by the project. We hope that the NGOs will be allowed to continue their work.”

In August, the government suspended land rights advocacy group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which has foreign staff and has been at the forefront of criticism of the government-led relocation of families that will be moved to make way for the railway rehabilitation. Shortly after, the Foreign Ministry accused two more NGO critical of the same project of inciting families against the government and ordered them to “readjust their work.”

In an Aug 1 letter to Sahmakum, the Interior Ministry ordered it to immediately suspend its work for the next five months. A few weeks later it publicly accused the organization of inciting the railway families by encouraging them to stand their ground against eviction.

Finally breaking its silence on the suspension earlier this month, Sahmakum denied inciting the families or ever working to have the railway project canceled.

In a statement issued Monday, Sahmakum said it had seen Mr Chhon’s letter. Though denied a copy of the letter, Sahmakum said the minister’s letter vindicated its claims that their suspension was politically motivated.

“STT hopes that this full vindication of our work will cause the authorities to promptly and unconditionally void the suspension so that we can return to the real and urgent work of monitoring the railway’s rehabilitation,” the group said.

The focus on advocacy groups critical of the government comes amid the government’s drafting of a stringent new law that aims to regulate all associations and non-government groups operating in the country. Hundreds of NGOs, backed by the UN and US, fear the law would be draconian and would give the government a new tool to stifle critics and free speech.

    (Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Phorn Bopha)



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