More NGOs scrutinised

Vincent MacIsaac and Cheang Sokha, Phnom Penh Post, Aug 19 2011

International NGO Bridges Across Borders and umbrella group NGO Forum met yesterday morning with officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who accused both of making “false” and “unfair” claims to the Asian Development Bank about the death of two children relocated by a railway rehabilitation project.

The meeting follows the suspension early this month of NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut for allegedly “inciting” villagers to protest against the railway project, and prompted a statement from the ADB yesterday supporting both groups and expressing concern about the level of scrutiny they are under.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong told the Post yesterday that the government was concerned about an October 21 report to the ADB linking the death of two children to the railway project, which is funded by the bank. It was signed by Bridges Across Borders, STT and umbrella groups NGO Forum and Housing Rights Taskforce.

The groups had pointed to the two children who drowned at a relocation site in Battambang as an example of inadequate facilities for those forced to move to make way for the restored railway.

The NGOs also brought the two cases to the attention of media in Cambodia and Australia.

“Our investigation contradicted the report from the NGOs. The railroad project and the drowning of the two children are completely different matters, but the NGOs linked them to the project when there was no link at all,” Koy Kuong said.

“We advised them to improve their work performance in order to further strengthen cooperation between the government and civil society,” he said, adding that the meeting yesterday was chaired by Secretary of State Ouch Borith.

Neither Bridges Across Borders nor STT responded to requests for comment yesterday. Staff at NGO Forum confirmed they had attended the meeting but declined to comment further. Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, which includes Bridges Across Borders as a member, confirmed that ministry officials had raised the issue at yesterday’s meeting.

“This government does not like NGOs,” Sia Phearum said, adding that the government did not want NGOs involved in development projects linked to businesses because this would require enhanced transparency. “If we were a real democracy they would thank [NGOs] for our work, but in this country it is different,” he said.

The ADB, which has approved US$84 million in loans for the railway project, was quick to react to the meeting saying it viewed “recent developments with the utmost seriousness”.

The project, which will rehabilitate rail lines connecting Kampot to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh to Battambang, is set to be completed by 2013. A joint venture between the Australian company Toll Holdings and Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group has a 30-year contract to build and run the railway network.