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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Government gets personal in forestry fight

Government gets personal in forestry fight

The government has shifted its accusations of incitement and defamation from Global

Witness (GW), its official forest crimes monitor, to the organization's country head

Eva Galabru.

That comes after a fortnight of official criticism heaped on the NGO after it condemned

police action against villagers requesting a meeting with the Department of Forestry

and Wildlife (DFW) on December 5.

The government's action drew outrage from numerous quarters. The World Bank was one

of many which condemned the treatment of villagers trying exert their right to consultation.

The Bank issued a statement on December 29 that noted GW had "performed a valuable

monitoring function in the forest sector". It added that the Bank's involvement

in forestry reform would be assessed using a number of factors. One was the government's

stated intention "to terminate its relationship with Global Witness".

The Bank has provided a $5 million loan to support forestry reform. Operations officer

Steven Schonberger said no decision would be taken until a review, possibly next

month.

"What we've indicated is that the $5 million support for concession management

will have its normal mid-term review. As part of any mid-term review, there will

be a review of the enabling factors for the project to be successful."

The Bank needed "clarification" of the government's position.

"These are not decisions we take lightly, obviously," he said.

The pressure from donors and organizations such as the World Bank seems to have forced

the government to re-assess its stance. Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state at the

Ministry of Information, blamed Galabru, not London-based GW, for the controversy.

"In fact, we have nothing against Global Witness," said Kanharith. "It

is the act of an individual. This organization in London assumes that everything

Galabru said is correct. I think what she did is the last straw."

He said any action taken to sue or expel Galabru would depend on a report by government

lawyers, who have been instructed to explore that possibility.

The government was embarrassed after strident criticism following the police action.

A video shot by GW shows villagers outside DFW running away from police carrying

batons.

A local human rights group carried out medical examinations on some of the villagers

afterwards. Several had sustained injuries, and one later died of a heart attack,

although it remains unclear whether that was due to the use of electric batons.

The government denied any wrongdoing. The most significant criticism came from Prime

Minister Hun Sen who told reporters on December 24: "Cambodia has to put an

end of the role of Global Witness in Cambodia ... We are asking Global Witness to

leave the country."

He also threatened to revoke the visas of its foreign staff, although no action has

yet been taken. GW remains relatively unfazed by the barrage of criticism.

"For us this is not really a new development," said Marcus Hardtke. "All

our successes were despite the constant obstacles that DFW put in front of us. As

we are the biggest critics of the forestry department and what's going on there,

they just want to get rid of us."

It seems the government has not yet made up its mind. On January 2 Kanharith denied

Hun Sen had in fact advocated GW's removal as the independent forestry monitor.

"It's not true," said Kanharith. "The Prime Minister was talking about

the idea of another independent monitor. Quite different from shutting it down. The

contract with Global Witness does not mean we won't allow any other forestry monitory

organization to come here."

However the NGO is still incurring the anger of DFW head Ty Sokhun, who told the

Post GW was a "terrorist" organization, and described its staff as "criminals".

He said the government would refuse to work with the organization "because of

the issue of sabotage".

"Global Witness must be sent to court," he said. "They create disorder

in society and they are inciters. They only create problems."

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