National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh broke stride with Prime Minister Hun Sen Wednesday over the status of besieged independent forestry monitor Global Witness, saying that the group should be allowed to continue operating as monitor.
Global Witness has international credibility, especially in the United Kingdom, where it is based, and should be allowed to stay in the country, he said.
Hun Sen threatened on Tuesday to expel the group, after accusing it of fabricating a public disturbance earlier this month between police and protesters.
“I think that the Kingdom of Cambodia, in the future, it necessarily needs observers who have a strong will to report the truth and aim to solve problems,” the prince told reporters outside the Assembly on Wednesday.
“Cambodia has accepted [the presence] of NGOs, and our view was that the Kingdom of Cambodia must carry culture and transparency, so I understand that,” he said. “We have to allow them to do their duty.”
If all NGOs were expelled transparency would suffer, he said.
The prince stopped short, however, of explicitly disagreeing with the prime minister over the fate of Global Witness.
“I don’t have the idea to reject [or support] the decision of the Prime Minister Hun Sen, because he is the leader of the executive branch, but I’m the leader of the legislative branch,” he said.
Minister of Environment Mok Mareth on Wednesday said that he stood behind the prime minister’s comments. “Samdech Hun Sen has analyzed the matter carefully. I think sometimes that Global Witness’ reports were not accurate,” he said.
The minister said reports written by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department often have stronger factual foundations than reports from Global Witness. Cooperation between the Agriculture Ministry and Global Witness has not been smooth, he said.
The loss of Cambodia’s forests to illegal logging has been one of the top concerns of donors for years. Most of Cambodia’s forested land remained untouched during the years of civil war, but the coming of peace in the 1990s has brought the forests the threat of destruction.
In a November statement, Global Witness charged that “Cambodia’s forests are being stolen from under the nose of the World Bank.”
“If the government [kicks out Global Witness], it will make other NGOs weak. Global Witness is the one who has tried to close the loopholes,” one Phnom Penh-based environmentalist said Wednesday.
The UN, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch and other aid groups or workers have all accused the government of trying to stamp out an emerging grassroots movement by going after Global Witness.
Human rights groups and Global Witness say that the group of rural residents who gathered outside the Department of Forestry on Dec 5 were only asking their government to hear their concerns. The government, Global Witness officials have said, responded with violence.
The government claims Global Witness made up allegations of police brutality stemming from the clash. The incident and the international condemnation it wrought, have brought long simmering tensions to a boil.
Other criticism has focused around a debacle last month outside the World Bank’s Phnom Penh headquarters, when officials there originally did not hand out copies of logging plans to rural activists—plans that were supposed to have been made public for a full 30 days.
In a Dec 18 letter to opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, World Bank country director for Cambodia Ian Porter, wrote, “We regret very much the difficulties encountered in making documents available” and assured the public that the bank has “made every effort to remedy the problems.”
Porter, who wrote the letter one week before Hun Sen’s threat to expel Global Witness, noted that the Forest Crimes Monitoring Project has given the Forestry Department “the skills and material resources needed to exert decisive control over concessionaires.”
The project, created by donor demand in 1999, includes Global Witness, the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department as members and the UN Development Program, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and the UK’s Department for International Development as donors.
“We certainly agree that it is now time for these resources and capabilities to be put to effective use by the government,” Porter wrote in the letter.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun and Bill Myers)