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NGO Forum breaks silence on ‘warning’

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Children sit on the tracks near Phnom Penh Railway Station last week.

NGO Forum confirmed yesterday it had received a “warning letter” from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over its advocacy on behalf of communities affected by a railway rehabilitation project funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and AusAID.

The warning to the umbrella group of 88 NGOs had been issued over a letter sent last year to the president of the ADB that “raised some concerns in relation to resettlement impacts from the railway project”, a statement from NGO Forum yesterday said.

It said the forum had informed its donors and members and was “in the process of responding to this letter”.

The group’s donors include Christian Aid and Oxfam.

“I do not want to comment further on this matter at this moment,” NGO Forum executive director Chhith Sam Ath told the Post yesterday.

He did say, however, that a meeting held on Thursday at the ministry was the first of its kind for NGO Forum, which began in the 1980s as a campaign to end an embargo on international aid to Cambodia that was in effect at the time.

Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong has accused NGO Forum and the international NGO Bridges Across Borders of making “false” and “unfair” claims to the ADB about the deaths of two children relocated by a railway rehabilitation project.

He said an October 21 letter to the ADB linked the children’s deaths to the railway project.

The letter was signed by Bridges Across Borders, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), NGO Forum and the Housing Rights Taskforce. STT was suspended early this month for all-egedly “inciting” villagers to protest against the railway project.

The suspension, followed by last week’s warning letters, has refocused concern on the government’s draft law on associations and NGOs.

Members of civil society have warned that STT’s suspension is a preview of what is in store for groups critical of the government.  

Human Rights Watch has also warned that the government’s moves will have a chilling effect on the media. “Information sources for the media among local assoc-iations will likely dry up because those association officials will rightly worry that the government could shut them down overnight,” the deputy director of the group’s Asia division, Phil Robertson, told the Post.

“This law will be a disaster for freedom of expression in Cambodia. Sadly, it’s clear this is precisely the intent of the highest levels of government, who don’t want to face any sort of criticism from anyone.”

Ath Thun, head of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, described the warning letters from the ministry as “an act of intimidation against free expression”.

The warnings were a step in a process that could lead to the shutting down of the groups, he said.

Koy Kuong could not be reached for comment.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the draft law on associations and NGOs was intended to protect them, and there remained avenues open for them to influence it.

He said he could not comment on the suspension of STT or the warning letters issued to NGO Forum and Bridges Across Borders.

“We are an open society,” Phay Siphan said. “They have a right to make noise. We accept that.”

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