Radio Australia: ADB denies requesting action against Cambodian NGOs

The Asian Development Bank says it’s found no evidence that one of its consultants asked the Cambodian authorities to take action against non-government organisations critical of resettlement conditions under an ADB-funded rail project.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speaker: Nora Lindstrom, from Sahmakum Teang Tnaut; Peter Brimble, deputy country head of Asian Development Bank
Listen: here

CARMICHAEL: In his June 17 letter Finance Minister Keat Chhon asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to approve a number of actions.

The first was to prohibit foreigners and all foreign NGOs from advocacy work.

The second was for the government to speedily approve and implement the draft NGO Law – legislation the government says is necessary, but which many in civil society maintain is a legal noose with which to hang the sector.

And third he asked that other ministries take action to “nullify the eligibility” of several NGOs.

The NGOs involved have one thing in common: they monitor the living conditions of people forced to move in a project to upgrade the nation’s decrepit railway. Around 4,000 families are affected.

The minister’s letter says the request to act against the NGOs was made by an unnamed consultant from the Asian Development Bank on the grounds that the groups were putting the bank under political pressure.

Such a request would fall well beyond the ADB’s remit.

Within weeks of the letter, the government took action against the four NGOs.

The letter also stated that ADB consultants had said the NGOs were against Cambodia’s development.

The ADB says it conducted a thorough internal investigation when it heard of the claims. ADB deputy country head Peter Brimble:

BRIMBLE: However no evidence was found to substantiate alleged misconduct by any ADB consultants. ADB is hiring an additional international staff member to work on social safeguards. And ADB has also met with numerous senior government officials about issues related to the railway project.

CARMICHAEL:However the ADB refused to release its investigation report, and said Radio Australia must apply formally for it. That application was made last week.

Most of the funding for the 142-million-dollar railway project is coming from the ADB and AusAID, the Australian government’s development arm.

Under the ADB’s rules on resettlement, people forced to move as a result of its projects must not end up worse off.

The targeted NGOs have proved trenchant critics of conditions at some resettlement sites and pointed out repeated failings, notably at one site where last year two children drowned, reportedly while fetching water.

Within weeks of Keat Chhon’s letter, the government ran a television campaign against critics of the railway rehabilitation project.

Shortly afterwards it suspended one NGO – called STT – for alleged paperwork violations, and warned the other three that their actions were discrediting the government and inciting people – which is a criminal offence.

Until now the government hasn’t said much. Numerous calls to finance ministry staff went unanswered, while spokesmen for other ministries refused to comment.

The NGOs have been more vocal. STT’s program development manager Nora Lindstrom says they learned about the controversial letter in July at the Ministry of Interior.

LINDSTROM: In a meeting with the ministry parts of it were read to us, and the letter was shown to us as well. Also it’s referenced in our suspension letter as well as in minutes from a meeting with the ministry.

CARMICHAEL: Lindstrom says the letter shows that STT’s suspension is politically motivated and directly related to its work monitoring railway resettlements. The government’s stated reasons of paperwork violations, she says, were simply a pretext.

AusAID, which is also funding the railway project, said by email that its deputy director James Batley had recently met Keat Chhon and “encouraged the Cambodian government to work constructively with NGOs”.

Meantime the Asian Development Bank says it doesn’t know why the government suspended STT.

BRIMBLE: However ADB has on numerous occasions informed senior government officials that STT has provided important information about the railway project. And that ADB hopes that all NGOs involved with the railway project will be able to continue their valuable work. ADB sees NGO involvement as integral to the project’s success.

CARMICHAEL: For now STT remains under a five-month suspension – waiting for the government to revoke its ban and allow it to get back to work. So far there’s been no sign of that.

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