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NGOs Will Continue Advocacy Along Railway: ADB

In this photo taken Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010, a service train operated by Toll Royal Cambodia passes over a river, just south of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. An Australian joint venture has a 30-year lease to upgrade and operate Cambodia's railway, p

A senior Asian Development Bank official said Wednesday that NGOs will continue working with villagers being relocated by a massive railway project, following the leak of a government letter seeking to shut them down.

In a June 17 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen obtained by VOA Khmer, Finance Minister Keat Chhon suggested the government “nullify the eligibility” of NGOs advocating for the rights of villagers who could lose their land in the project.

“The main goal of these NGOs is to cancel the construction of the railway,” the letter said.

Keat Chhon could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and a Finance Ministry official said he had “no idea” about the letter, which has Keat Chhon’s signature.

The Asian Development bank is supporting a $146-million project that would rehabilitate Cambodia’s railways to help connect Asean countries to Kunming, China. Thousands of people will have to be relocated as a result.

In a phone interview, ADB Country Director Putu Kamayana said NGOs “involved with the railway project have provided useful information that has helped address the needs of people affected by the project.”

“ADB hopes the NGOs will be allowed to continue their work on the railway project,” he said.

Keat Chhon said in his letter that an ADB consultant had warned government officials to “be careful with NGOs and requested the government take immediate action.”

Kamayana told Deutche Presse-Agentur the ADB had found “no evidence to substantiate alleged misconduct by any ADB consultants.”

In the weeks following the letter, one NGO working closely with residents along the railway, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, was suspended by the Ministry of Interior and another, Bridges Across Borders, received a reprimand from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Michelle Bennet, a US Embassy spokeswoman, did not comment directly on the letter, but said in an e-mail, “The US strongly believes that a strong, independent, and diverse civil society is indispensible to democracy and Cambodia’s continued development.”

A French Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.