ADB backs under-fire campaigners in Cambodia

Nicolas Asfouri, AFP News, Aug. 20 2011

PHNOM PENH — The Asian Development Bank on Friday defended two land rights organisations in Cambodia that have been rapped by the government for criticising an ADB-funded railway redevelopment project.

The attacks on the two groups, who monitor the relocation of families living near the railway tracks, come as the government is preparing a controversial law to regulate the activities of campaigners and charity workers.

“ADB views recent developments with the utmost seriousness,” the bank said in a statement after the localSahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) charity was slapped with a five-month suspension and international groupBridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC) was given a government warning over a critical report.

Both had been monitoring the project’s resettlement of over 1,000 families and had provided “important information”, the Manila-based lender said, adding it hoped they would “be allowed to continue making contributions”.

The bank is providing $84 million in loans for the $140 million project to improve Cambodia’s tattered railway system, with additional funding coming from the Australian government and Phnom Penh.

The government suspended STT earlier this month, ostensibly for failing to file the correct paperwork, but 40 non-profit groups said in a joint statement the real reason was the group’s “legitimate work among urban poor communities”.

BABC, meanwhile, was summoned to meet foreign ministry officials on Thursday to “clarify” a statement from October last year that said two children had drowned fetching water in a relocation site it said lacked proper facilities.

“The deaths of the children are not linked to ADB’s project to restore the railway,” foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told AFP, adding that the government had told BABC to “improve its work”.

The action against the two charities has fuelled fears of a wider crackdown on civil society groups once the proposed NGO law takes effect, rights groups said.

The legislation has come under fire from campaigners in Cambodia and abroad for imposing burdensome registration requirements and giving the government the power to dissolve organisations.

In January the US State Department said it had “serious concerns” about the draft law and questioned whether the measure was even necessary.

Charities have played an active role in rebuilding Cambodia since it emerged from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and years of civil war, but they have on occasion clashed with the government.