BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The Cambodian government has warned an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations over critical letters it sent to international donors funding a $142-million railway project, the Phnom Penh Post reports.
NGO Forum, which groups 88 organisations, wrote last year to the heads of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Australia's international aid programme AusAID to raise concerns about the impact of the railway refurbishment on people living along the tracks who have been resettled.
The letters said two children had drowned fetching water in a relocation site in Battambang in northwestern Cambodia due to lack of proper facilities.
The warning, made in a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, comes at a time of increasing tensions between the government and a burgeoning civil society which has become openly critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“By going after the NGO Forum, the Cambodian government is essentially telling development partners like the ADB and others to butt out, and expanding the dragnet against civil society dissidents,” Phil Robertson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division told AlertNet.
He added: “Bilateral and multilateral donors should seriously start re-assessing whether a rights abusing government like this one that persecutes civil society watchdogs is the best partner for their increasingly scarce development budgets.”
STT, whose funders include the German government’s development arm GIZ, was slapped with a five-month suspension early this month for allegedly inciting villagers to protest against the project. The media has also reported that BABC was summoned to meet Foreign Ministry officials last week.
Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong accused NGO Forum and BABC of making “false” and “unfair” claims about the children’s deaths.
NGO Forum’s executive officer Chhith Sam Ath told the Post they were responding to the letter but said he did not want to comment further.
ADB is contributing $84 million in concessional loans and AusAID $21.5 million in grants to the project which will impact at least 4,000 poor families who live along the tracks, BABC said.
The dispute comes as Cambodia assesses a controversial draft law regulating NGOs which critics fear is an attempt to muzzle civil society.
A statement signed by 130 NGOs condemned the suspension of STT and said it was “completely arbitrary, a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and association, and an assault on human rights defenders”.
It added: “The use of a vague administrative technicality to suspend an organisation is an alarmingly clear sign of how the Cambodian government intends to use the LANGO (Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations) to curb the activities of all associations and NGOs that advocate for the rights of marginalised groups within Cambodian society.”
Robertson said: “The Cambodia government’s unjustified and frankly illegal suspension of local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) clearly reveals what many have believed all along, which is that its real motivation in seeking a law on associations and NGOs is to control civil society groups and abruptly silence those that expose rights abuses and official corruption.”
The Cambodian government has long had a strained relationship with donors.
On Tuesday it postponed indefinitely a top-level meeting with foreign donors. This followed an announcement last week that the World Bank has halted loans to the government over its failure to curb forced evictions from land earmarked for luxury housing in the capital.