DPA: Asian Development Bank denies requesting action against NGOs

Sep. 19, 2011, Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Phnom Penh – The Asian Development Bank on Monday dismissed accusations that one of its consultants asked Phnom Penh to act against groups monitoring one of its infrastructure development projects.

An internal investigation found ‘no evidence’ of any request for action against two rights groups that advocate for people affected by a 142-million-dollar railway rehabilitation project, ADB country head Putu Kamayana said.
His comments contradict a June 17 letter from Minister of Finance Keat Chhon to Prime Minister Hun Sen, a copy of which the German Press Agency dpa has seen.

Keat Chhon wrote that an unidentified ADB consultant had asked the government to act against the groups STT and Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC).

In his letter, the minister asked Hun Sen to ‘nullify (their) eligibility.’The ADB consultant has drawn the attention of the government officials to be careful with these NGOs, and requested the government take immediate action on this group of foreign NGOs because (the) ADB is also under political pressure caused by these NGOs,’ he wrote.

Within weeks the government suspended STT for alleged paperwork violations, and warned BABC for ‘discrediting the government’ and inciting people against the government, a criminal offence. Two other groups monitoring railway resettlement were similarly cautioned.

Keat Chhon also wrote that ‘local and international consultants’ from the ADB had said the main goal of the non-governmental organizations was to cancel the railway’s construction.

Cambodia is rehabilitating its railway, which fell into neglect after years of conflict. When completed, the new railway will close the gap in the regional rail network and link Singapore to the city of Kunming in China.

The ADB’s Kamayana said the bank was aware of the allegations and had carried out a ‘thorough internal investigation.’
‘No evidence was found to substantiate alleged misconduct by any ADB consultants,’ Kamayana said by email.

However, the ADB earlier declined to provide a copy of its investigation report, saying dpa could apply for it through the bank’s formal information channels. A formal request on September 13 has so far not been answered. Kamayana said the ADB hoped the NGOs would be allowed to continue their monitoring work, which was ‘integral’ to the project’s success.

In his letter, Keat Chhon also recommended banning any advocacy work by foreign NGOs and foreigners in local NGOs.
He also said the government should rapidly pass and implement the controversial draft NGO Law. The bill has riled some donors and hundreds of civil society groups who say it will impose burdensome restrictions on NGOs, and increase the power of the government over them.

Keat Chhon’s letter carried an annotation from Hun Sen on June 19 approving its contents. Keat Chhon and staff at the finance ministry could not be reached for comment. Officials at other ministries declined to comment.

The ADB has provided 84 million dollars for the railway rehabilitation project, while the Australian government’s development arm AusAID has provided 21.5 million dollars.

STT and BABC have worked for nearly two years with villagers facing resettlement under the rehabilitation.

ADB rules say people who are resettled must not end up worse off. In a letter to the ADB last year the groups targeted by the government criticized conditions at a resettlement site where two children drowned. David Pred, BABC’s executive director, said by email that the ‘dire circumstances’ of many resettled families showed the bank’s consultants had failed in their duties. Referring to the June 17 letter, he said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ that ADB consultants appeared involved in actions against the NGOs.

The authorities have crossed swords with STT and BABC before, notably over the groups’ advocacy on behalf of villagers at the controversial Boeung Kak lake project in central Phnom Penh, which is being developed by a prominent ruling party senator. In March, the World Bank suspended lending to Cambodia after a slew of evictions at the lake saw thousands of residents displaced with what rights groups said was inadequate compensation.

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.