Cambodia's Consecutive Warnings, Suspension of Critical NGOs a Preview of Things to Come?

The Cambodian flag. Photo by: Felix Triller / CC BY

The Cambodian government has slapped consecutive warnings on civil society groups critical of its railway project last week. This comes on the heels of the government’s suspension of another non-governmental organization earlier this month, reinforcing the belief that the government’s actions could be a preview of what is in store for groups critical of the government when Cambodia enacts an NGO law.

The NGO Forum, an umbrella group of 88 non-governmental organizations that has been at the forefront of the advocacy on behalf of communities affected by a massive railway rehabilitation project, confirmed Sunday, Aug. 21, it has received a warning letter from the foreign affairs ministry.

Another NGO, the international group Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, has been summoned by the foreign ministry Thursday, Aug. 18, and has likewise received a warning.

The warnings issued to the two groups were about a letter sent to the president of the Asian Development Bank in October last year. The letter raised serious concerns about the impact of a $142 million government project to rehabilitate Cambodia’s railway, which is being supported by a concessional loan from ADB and a grant from AusAID. The groups argue the project has worsened the lives of more than 1,000 relocated households.

The letter to ADB said two children drowned in a pond in a project-provided relocation site because of the lack of piped water there. However, according to foreign affairs ministry spokesman Koy Kuong, linking the deaths of the children to the railway project was “false” and “unfair,” the Phnom Penh Post reports. The ministry spokesman also reportedly told BABC to “improve its work.”

Aside from the NGO Forum and BABC, other groups who signed the letter to ADB include the local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which the government closed down for five months starting Aug. 1, for its alleged failure to submit certain reports. However, 40 NGOs argued in a statement that the real reason for STT’s suspension was its legitimate work among urban poor communities.

Ath Thun, head of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, thus fears the warnings issued to NGO Forum and BABC were just a step in the process to shut down these groups. He also says that the warnings issued by the government is “an act of intimidation against free expression.”

The ADB has issued a statement Friday, Aug. 19, defending STT and BABC. According to a report by the Agence France-Presse, ADB said the groups had been providing “important information” on the railway projects and that it hoped the groups would “be allowed to continue making contributions.”


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  • Che

    Che de los Reyes

    As a senior staff writer, Che focuses on international development breaking news coverage as well as interviews and features. Prior to joining Devex, Che handled communications for local and international development NGOs and government institutions in the Philippines.