Government yet to deny authenticity of railway letter

Vincent MacIsaac, Phnom Penh Post, Sep. 30 2011

Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon has failed to respond to requests made almost two months ago about the authenticity of a letter in which he allegedly urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to ban foreign NGOs from doing advocacy work in Cambodia.

The ADB told the Post that it had written to Keat Chhon on August 9 raising concerns about the content of the controversial June 17 letter recommending that two NGOs critical of the US$144 million railway rehabilitation project it and AusAID are funding be shut down.

The letter also called for foreign nationals to be banned from involvement in Cambodian NGOs that do advocacy here and urged the Council of Ministers to speed up its review and implementation of the draft law on associations and NGOs.

The recommendations were approved by Hun Sen on June 19, according to a copy of the letter leaked to the media early last week.

The ADB said yesterday it has “not received a denial or confirmation of the letter’s authenticity to date”. It also said that it had contacted “senior officials in the Ministry of Economy and Finance” and “subsequently” written to Keat Chhon about the document on August 9.

Two secretaries of state at the ministry previously denied any knowledge of the June 17 letter to the Post. Ministry staff yesterday referred all questions to Secretary General Vongsey Vissoth, who could not be reached.

An internal investigation by the ADB has found no misconduct among its consultants, and it reiterated yesterday that its consultants “deny having made the alleged statements” that urged the government to crack down on NGOs.

The bank’s letter to Keat Chhon also “reiterated ADB’s position that NGOs involved with the railway project have provided useful information that has helped address the needs of people affected by the project”, it said.

The ADB said last week it would not condone any staff making the statements against NGOs contained in the June 17 letter. Keat Chhon, who allegedly wrote the letter, is a member of the ADB’s board of governors. When asked whether he would be asked to step down from this position while an investigation into the authenticity of the letter was conducted, the ADB directed reporters to its charter.

This states that members of the board of governors are appointed by member states of the ADB, and that they “serve at the pleasure of the appointing member”.

The ADB’s code of ethics applies to its entire staff, including consultants and directors, but it does not specify whether it applies to members of its board of governors.