A senior Asian Development Bank official said Wednesday that NGOs will continue working with villagers being relocated by a massive railway project, following the leak of a government letter seeking to shut them down.
In a June 17 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen obtained by VOA Khmer, Finance Minister Keat Chhon suggested the government “nullify the eligibility” of NGOs advocating for the rights of villagers who could lose their land in the project.
“The main goal of these NGOs is to cancel the construction of the railway,” the letter said. Keat Chhon could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and a Finance Ministry official said he had “no idea” about the letter, which has Keat Chhon’s signature.
The Asian Development bank is supporting a $146-million project that would rehabilitate Cambodia’s railways to help connect Asean countries to Kunming, China. Thousands of people will have to be relocated as a result.
In a phone interview, ADB Country Director Putu Kamayana said NGOs “involved with the railway project have provided useful information that has helped address the needs of people affected by the project.”
“ADB hopes the NGOs will be allowed to continue their work on the railway project,” he said.
Keat Chhon said in his letter that an ADB consultant had warned government officials to “be careful with NGOs and requested the government take immediate action.”
Kamayana told Deutche Presse-Agentur the ADB had found “no evidence to substantiate alleged misconduct by any ADB consultants.”
In the weeks following the letter, one NGO working closely with residents along the railway, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, was suspended by the Ministry of Interior and another, Bridges Across Borders, received a reprimand from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Michelle Bennet, a US Embassy spokeswoman, did not comment directly on the letter, but said in an e-mail, “The US strongly believes that a strong, independent, and diverse civil society is indispensible to democracy and Cambodia’s continued development.”
A French Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.
Land-Rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut yesterday called on authorities to “promptly and unconditionally” allow it to return to its work monitoring the rehabilitation of the country’s railways, following a report it said fully vindicated its claim that its August 2 suspension by the Ministry of Interior was politically motivated.
The report by news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur cited a June 17 letter from Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon to Prime Minister Hun Sen in which an unidentified ADB consultant allegedly asked the government to take action against STT and NGO Bridges Across Borders Cambodia because the ADB was under pressure from them over its funding of the railway project.
A June 17 letter from the Ministry of Economy and Finance is referred to in the suspension letter sent to STT from the interior ministry, but the Post could not confirm its contents. STT, however, said yesterday, that the “letter was first shown to us, and parts of it read to us, during a meeting with the Ministry of Interior in July”. A spokesperson for STT said the letter was “also referred to in official meeting minutes from our meeting with the MoI”, but said its request for a copy of it had been denied. When asked to comment Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said STT’s suspension was “old news”. He also said it was not his responsibility to comment on any letter from a different ministry, but added that any NGO that wanted to work in Cambodia had to “act according to Cambodian law”.
STT said “other accusations made against us [by the interior ministry] concerning administrative details are not only incorrect, but were used by the government as pretexts to obfuscate the facts and to silence us”. It said the June letter also “reveals a deeply concerning action by a consultant of one of the most influential institutions in the region”, referring to the ADB.
ADB country director Putu Kamayana, however, said: “ADB does not have a copy of the alleged letter … and since we do not have a copy … was unable to verify the accuracy of a translation [it was given].” “Nonetheless, given the seriousness of the allegations, ADB conducted a thorough internal investigation and did not find any evidence to substantiate inappropriate conduct by an ADB consultant.
The NGOs were unable to provide any more information on the alleged statements by the consultants. We have met them numerous times to discuss these issues,” he said.
PHNOM PENH -These are tough times for Cambodia’s embattled non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As the government gears up to pass controversial legislation regulating the country’s estimated 2,000 civil society groups, it has drawn strong criticism for a coordinated crackdown on land rights groups working on a foreign donor-funded railway renovation project.
On August 4, the Cambodian Ministry of Interior suspended the local organization Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), one of several involved with monitoring the resettlement of residents displaced by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and AusAID-funded rail project. At first authorities claimed the suspension was due to inconsistencies in the group’s paperwork, but soon tipped their hand.
“STT operated and incited people to oppose national development by the government in order to make the development partners suspend or stop the project,” the ministry said in an August 14 statement.
The $141 million project will see the renovation of Cambodia’s decrepit rail system and is set to impact around 4,000 poor families living along the tracks. But resettlement options for those affected have come under fire from STT and other land rights groups since May 2010, when two young children drowned at a resettlement site in Battambang province. STT has also accused the government of the “systematic downgrading” of land values along rail lines in a bid to short-change residents on compensation.
In recent months, groups working on rail resettlement issues have been attacked by the highest reaches of the government. In a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen dated June 17, Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon requested that the premier approve punitive action against STT and Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC), another group that has been active on the railway project.
Keat Chhon cited an unnamed ADB consultant as saying the bank had come under “political pressure” from the two organizations, and asked the government to “take immediate action” to stem their activities. The minister also issued the following instructions for Hun Sen’s approval: “Do not allow foreign NGOs to do advocacy work. Local NGOs who do advocacy work must not have foreigners involved or interfere.”
He also requested “action according to the laws to nullify the eligibility of these NGOs,” and referred specifically to a passage of the new NGO law. “I would like to request the Council of Ministers to review and implement the draft law on Association and Non-Governmental Organizations in a speedy manner,” Keat Chhon wrote.
(ADB country director Putu Kamayana told the German press agency Deutsche Presse Agentur the bank has conducted “a thorough investigation” which found “no evidence” of misconduct by any ADB consultants).
In late July, TV station TVK ran an interview with three government officials about the railway project in which they dismissed NGO criticisms of the project’s resettlement and compensation policies as “baseless”. According to a transcript of the interview, one official went on to slam various unnamed groups that “incite, provoke and make the affected families to be confused”.
He identified the culprits as “a small group of NGOs” that were “composed of foreigners” and called on their foreign staff to “no longer exploit the affected people to make your career”. The interview has been rebroadcast at least three times since its original airing.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said STT’s suspension showed that the Cambodian government “doesn’t allow legal principles to get in the way of political priorities”. “When the order comes from the top to shutter a NGO or intimidate a community association, officials take action first and figure out the justification for what they did afterwards,” he said by e-mail.
Since STT’s suspension, the government has warned staff from the NGO Forum, an umbrella civil society organization, over letters it sent to ADB and AusAID officials alerting them about the situation at resettlement sites. It has also summoned staff from BABC to warn them about making “false” claims about the deaths of the two children last year, local media reported.
The repressive atmosphere is spreading. On September 7, Cambodian authorities and police armed with AK-47s disrupted a human-rights training event organized by two local NGOs in Kampong Thom province.
According to a statement issued shortly afterwards by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which co-organized the workshop, police photographed those taking part in the event, including local activists and community members protesting against land grabs.
Participants were told they did not have the necessary “permission” to hold the workshop. Quoted in the Cambodia Daily, Kampong Thom provincial police chief Phan Sopheng accused the two organizations of “inciting” local people, and warned that both could be suspended if they pushed ahead with future events.
Since the United Nations transitional mission of the early 1990s seeded Cambodia with a vibrant civil society sector, NGOs here have had an ambivalent relationship with the government.
For Hun Sen, tolerating a vocal civil society has been the price for keeping the Western aid dollars flowing; their criticisms of his government have been neutralized by his frequent references to the ravages of the Pol Pot regime, which stands accused of killing as many as two million people, and vague promises of future reforms.
This had made Cambodia a relative safe haven for civil society activists – by Asian standards, at least – but has also made Hun Sen’s government one of the most firmly entrenched, its tight grip on power legitimized internationally by its apparent tolerance for open criticism.
But with the new NGO law looming on the horizon – coupled with the massive increase in no-strings-attached aid and investment from China and the generally supine posture of UN agencies and most other donors – the balance could be tipping decisively in the government’s favor.
Officials have claimed the law, currently in draft form, is necessary to regulate the country’s sometimes unwieldy NGO sector. But the legislation has been widely criticized for granting the government the power to dissolve organizations on vague pretexts, and plague small groups with onerous registration procedures.
HRW’s Robertson said recent incidents only cast further doubt on the true purposes of the law. “The problem with the government’s claims of benign regulatory intent is that this totally contradicts their historical record of going after troublesome NGOs and community associations with the equivalent of hooks and hammers – including straightforward intimidation, violent repression of demonstrations, and now regulatory restrictions,” he said.
“There is basically no chance that a law on associations and NGOs will be used in the sort of benevolent, hands-off manner that the government is desperately trying to persuade the international community to believe,” Robertson added.
Indeed, the government’s moves could to some degree be an outgrowth of the souring of relations between Cambodia and some of its international donors. During a high-level donor meeting in April, USAID country head Flynn Fuller warned of a funding freeze if the NGO law was passed, describing it as “excessively restrictive”.
In August, the World Bank announced it had frozen funding to Cambodia over a rash of land seizures at Boeung Kak lake in central Phnom Penh, a high-profile eviction case that was brought to the Bank’s attention by several land rights groups, including STT and BABC. Shortly afterwards, Cambodia indefinitely postponed its next meeting with donors set for November.
CCHR president Ou Virak said that the active role played by the land rights NGOs in getting the World Bank to take action on the Boeung Kak issue may very well have pushed the government into taking a stronger stance against criticism of the rail project. He said the government had responded to its critics “the only way they know how” – by attacking the messenger.
But the groups involved say that contrary to the government’s implications, they are not opposed to national development. Ee Sarom, STT’s programs coordinator, said his group was working for “a transparent and sustainable development process that benefits all sectors of society and does not leave citizens worse off.”
“This type of work is important in ensuring development projects are equitable, sustainable, and beneficial to all Cambodians,” he said.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to listen to ABC Radio Australia’s Sep. 6 Asia Connect broadcast with a feature on the recent crackdown on Cambodian NGO’s monitoring the resettlement impacts of the ADB and AusAID financed railways rehabilitation.
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.