The World Bank warned on Monday that the government’s ongoing detentions of leading figures from the political opposition, trade unions, the media and NGOs could affect its ability to attract investors and foreign development money to the country.
The World Bank’s Country Director Ian Porter said in a statement that the use of criminal law in cases involving dissenting political opinions will send “a worrying message” to potential investors and development partners about Cambodia’s commitment to openness, transparency and sustainable development.
“We are deeply concerned by the recent arrests and prosecutions and urge the Government to consider very carefully the compatibility of such actions with the commitments it has made towards building a more open, democratic and just society,” he said.
“In a country where corruption is extensive and accountability is weak, greater openness and more vigorous public scrutiny—not less—are essential,” he added.
The World Bank currently has 11 projects in Cambodia worth $252 million, of which $93 million has already been distributed, World Bank spokeswoman Kimberly Verlak said in an e-mail message from Bangkok on Monday.
Annual aid and development contributions to the country are tied directly to the country’s performance over the past year, as evaluated through set conditions including transparency, accountability and rule of law.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang, Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak, Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun and Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive 105 FM Radio station, have all been detained at Prey Sar prison after being charged with defaming the government or Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon said he was not worried about investors shying away from the country or foreign aid being cut because of the arrests.
“This is not an issue of investment,” he said. “The government has already clarified the issue. These are defamation cases. I don’t have any concern; we will just work normally.”
The World Bank’s statement was matched by the second condemnation in as many weeks from the US State Department, which called on the government to release jailed activists and drop politically-motivated charges against activists and opposition leaders.
“We are deeply concerned by what appears to be a concerted Cambodian government campaign to neutralize its critics through targeted arrests,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement received on Monday.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith could not be contacted on Monday, but has previously said that the government had to file a lawsuit against critics to protect Hun Sen’s and the government’s reputations, and to ensure that accusations relating to the border do not create social unrest.
Cambodian Television Network on Sunday night broadcast pictures of the banner for which Kem Sokha, Yeng Virak and Pa Nguon Teang were detained.
The banner, displayed at the International Human Rights Day celebration on Dec 10, included comments written by members of the public that were critical of Hun Sen and the government. Shown on CTN at about 11 pm, the banner contained allegations relating to bloodshed and land being sold to Vietnam.
CTN producer Chum Kosal, who is an adviser to Hun Sen, defended the court’s decision to detain the three men. “This is a simple issue,” he said on the air. Adding that the country’s human rights situation has improved since 1997, he said, “This is not the elimination of democracy.”
CTN anchor Soy Sopheap stressed that Cambodia is not a second Burma, since Burma has a military government while Cambodia’s is democratically elected.
CCHR spokesman Ou Virak said center staff have already toured five provinces to collect thumbprints from villagers on petitions calling for the release of the detainees.
Local authorities in Kompong Speu and Kompong Thom provinces confiscated several pages of thumbprints in recent days, he said, but no staff members were detained.
Despite the detention of its leaders, the CCHR plans to host three of its public forums this week. The first one is scheduled for today in Takeo province, the second on Thursday in Kompong Cham province and the third in Phnom Penh on Sunday.