Reaction to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threat this week to replace independent forestry monitor Global Witness has been muted by the holidays as officials from the World Bank and elsewhere stayed away from their offices and public comment Thursday.
NGO officials working in the logging industry stayed low as well this week for fear that the prime minister’s threat to revoke visas would be widened to include others who support the work of Global Witness, one NGO official said. Global Witness Director Eva Galabru, meanwhile, had no comment Thursday on whether the NGO planned to issue an apology to the government, a tactic that saved the NGO from expulsion in early 2001 after it was accused of intentionally embarrassing the government.
“That’s very premature [to talk about an apology],” Galabru said. “The ball is very much in [the government’s] court.”
Only the latest flare-up in the often thorny relationship between the government and its independent forestry monitor, this week’s threat stems from a violent confrontation Dec 5 in front of the Department of Forestry between villagers and police. One villager died shortly after the confrontation, though his death could not be definitively linked to the police crackdown. Global Witness and others have said police used violence to suppress the villagers, who had come to Phnom Penh to learn more about logging company plans for the forests in their homelands; government officials have said Global Witness exaggerated the confrontation.
If the prime minister carried out his threats to replace Global Witness as forestry monitor, to revoke the visas of the foreign staff of Global Witness and to prevent Cambodian nationals, including Galabru, from continuing their work, he could set off the same conditions that lead the International Monetary Fund to suspend $60 million in aid in 1996.
The international aid agency said at the time that rampant logging was beyond government control and would require a strong and independent monitor to oversee logging practices. The IMF funds were restored when the government hired Global Witness as its independent monitor. World Bank officials could not be reached for comment Thursday, but several observers, including two US senators, have called on the international organization to cut funding to Cambodia because of the widening rift over Global Witness. The government continues to work on management plans that will eventually lead to the resumption of logging, which Hun Sen halted one year ago.
Ty Sokhun, director of the Forestry Department, said Thursday that the public would be allowed to make comments on the management plans until Jan 31.
, two months beyond the original comment period.