Railway project in ADB’s sights

Mary Kozlovski, Phnom Penh Post, Sep. 6 2011

The Asian Development Bank said yesterday problems with a railway rehabilitation project – funded by the bank and AusAID – identified by a local NGO that was suspended by the government last month “may require further investigation or analysis”.

Last month, the government suspended the operations of local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which released a report in July that was critical of the project.

“In monitoring the implementation of resettlement under the project, STT identified issues and procedures that could be improved and, in some cases, may require further investigation or analysis,” Asian Development Bank country director Putu Kamayana said in an email yesterday.

He added that ADB reviews “have found that the living allowance set forth under the original Resettlement Plan is now insufficient due to rising food prices in recent years”.

In July, STT released a report stating that compensation for villagers in four communities in the capital affected by the project might be insufficient due to a “systematic downgrade” of the value of their homes by the government.

STT director Ee Sarom said by email yesterday that officials from the Ministry of Interior had said during meetings that the NGO’s suspension last month was “directly related” to its work with residents affected by the railway project.

The ministry had previously accused STT of “inciting villagers” to rally against the railway project with the aim of causing development partners to “suspend” it.

STT defended its work, saying it was focused on “ensuring that affected households are not harmed” and had “never called for the railways rehabilitation project to be cancelled”.

Kamayana, however, said yesterday the government had informed the bank that the suspension of STT was “unrelated” to its railway monitoring work.

Interior Ministry secretary of state Nouth Sa An and spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Rights groups have claimed that STT’s suspension offers a preview of what will happen if the government enacts a controversial law on assoc-iations and NGOs operating in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, civil society groups said in a statement yesterday that residents affected by the railway development feared the loss of NGOs working on the project amid “mounting pressure” from the government.

Housing Rights Task Force, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia and STT said STT’s suspension, as well as warning letters issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry to Bridges Across Borders Cambodia and NGO Forum last month, were “likely to be detrimental to the project”.

“The affected people living along the railway tracks are increasingly scared and fear that, without the work of the NGOs monitoring the project, safeguard violations will remain unaddressed,” the statement read. The organis-ations emphasised, however, that they were “not against” the railway project.

“We support all development projects that reduce poverty and fulfil the human rights of the Cambodian people,” the release said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan and Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

Eang Vuthy, a program manager at Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, said yesterday the ADB should urge the government to retract its accusations against the organisations and remove STT’s suspension.

“ADB has to take a further step to make sure … that STT’s suspension is reversed. They have to make sure that these people, these NGOs, can carry out their work independently, without interference and without accusat-ions,” Eang Vuthy said.

“[We] are doing work to support the government to make sure the development is benefiting people.”

In an August 18 letter, Kamayana stated that he hoped NGOs would continue their work on the project and said STT had provided “important information” regarding resettlement for affected families.