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NGO ban questioned

NGO ban questioned

PRIME Minister Hun Sen allegedly approved a recommendation from Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon that foreign NGOs be banned from doing advocacy work in Cambodia, according to documents received late yesterday by the Post.

In an accompanying translation of the yet-to-be verified June 17 letter, he also agreed to a call for Cambodian NGOs that do advocacy not to have foreigners involved in them. The letter also includes a recommendation that the Council of Ministers speed up its review and implementation of the draft law on associations and NGOs.

The recommendations followed sharp criticism from NGOs of the resett-lement impacts of the US$141 million railway rehabilitation project, which is funded by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID.  

Hun Sen gave his approval to the recommendations on June 19, according to the copy of the documents. The letter had been photographed, apparently by a cell phone, is marked with the Finance Ministry’s stamp and is accompanied by what appears to be Hun Sen’s signature.

Some Khmer wording was not clear in the copy and though sections of the translation have been verified by the Post as accurate, its authenticity has not yet been independently confirmed.

The letter accuses “ignorant foreign NGOs” of inciting the about 4,000 people affected by the railway project “to file complaints”, according to the translation. It also accuses the NGOs of creating chaos and confusing “affected people” so that “those who possess the land illegally … believe that they possess [it] legally”.

Four NGOs had written to the bank’s president last year calling for the suspension of loans for the project until resettlement issues were addressed. One, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, was suspended by the Ministry of Interior in late July, while Bridges Across Borders Cambodia and NGO Forum received written warnings from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both STT and Bridges Across Borders are mentioned by name in the letter.

Government officials either said they were unaware of the letter or not in a position to comment on it, or both, last night. Ministry of Interior spokesman Phay Siphan said he had no knowledge of the letter. After it was briefly described to him, he said that only the Ministry of Finance and Economy, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet or the Asian Development Bank could comment on it.  

Keat Chhon could not be reached for comment. Kong Vibol, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said he had no knowledge of the letter and could comment no further. Eang Sophalleth, an adviser to Hun Sen, also said he could not comment because he had no knowledge of the letter.

Sothea Ros, spokesman for the Asian Development Bank, said the bank would carefully review the document before replying. The ADB said it had conducted an internal investigation following allegations – also contained in the letter – that consultants for the organisation, both Cambodian and expatriate, had requested that two NGOs be shut.

It also reiterated its support for the NGOs, saying they had “provided useful information about the resettlement process which has helped us to address the needs of the people affected by the project. We hope that the NGOs will be allowed to continue their work”.

Meanwhile, NGO Forum has responded to its warning letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its executive director, Chhith Sam Ath, said yesterday the umbrella group of 88 NGOs had responded to the ministry on September 2, but declined to comment further.

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