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Thursday, April 21, 2011

US warns Cambodia over controversial law

The United States has threatened to freeze aid spending to Cambodia if the government pushes ahead with a highly controversial draft law designed to regulate civil society.

The comments were made by Flynn Fuller, the country head of the US government's development agency USAID, during a closed meeting between the Cambodian government and donors in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.

The meeting assessed Phnom Penh's progress in attaining a series of 20 benchmarks in areas such as judicial reform and land rights.

"In these times of fiscal constraint, justifying increased assistance to Cambodia will become very difficult in the face of shrinking space for civil society to function," Fuller said, adding that the "excessively restrictive" law would harm development.

"We strongly urge the government to reconsider the necessity of the draft NGO [non-governmental organisation] law, and if so, to adopt a law consistent with a commitment to expand, rather than restrict, the freedom for civil society organisations to operate," he said.

Last year, donors pledged 1.1 billion dollars in development assistance, around half of Cambodia's budget.

Civil society has condemned the draft NGO law, which requires all NGOs and associations to register with the government, as woolly, lacking definition and full of ambiguities.

A coalition of around 300 civil society groups said the law would impose onerous administration requirements on the country's crop of 3, 000 NGOs and hundreds of associations, something many lack the capacity to comply with.

NGOs had called on donors to weigh in on the issue.

Prominent human rights group LICADHO said recently the law constituted "the most serious threat to civil society in Cambodia for years."

The government has said it drafted the law to protect NGOs. Last week, spokesman Phay Siphan said the government was prepared to listen to changes suggested by civil society, something critics said it failed to do after two rounds of consultation in recent months.

Phay Siphan's pledge contrasted with public comments by other spokesmen who said the draft would not be amended.

The draft law is expected to head to the Council of Ministers for assessment in the coming weeks before being presented to parliament for approval later this year.

USAID works with more than 100 local organizations in Cambodia in areas such as governance, health and education. The US, the third-largest donor to Cambodia, approved 72 million dollars in aid last year, and is seeking approval from legislators for around 88 million dollars for 2012.
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Laos Faces Pressure to Alter Hydropower Ambitions

Cambodian fishermen move their fishing net from the Mekong River as they catch fish at the out skirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 19, 2011

Laos plans to build a hydropower dam on the lower Mekong River, but neighboring countries say more study is needed. Analysts say the high-level opposition puts pressure on Laos to alter its hydropower ambitions.

A controversial proposal by Laos to build the first of 11 hydropower dams planned for the lower Mekong River has angered people who live near the river's banks.

Perceived threat
Prailor Manmoon is an ethnic Lao woman living in Kong Nang, a Thai village on the Mekong River located downstream of the proposed Xayaburi hydropower dam.

On Sunday, as children played in the nearby Mekong River, Manmoon and her neighbors gathered to eat sticky rice and discuss the proposed Xayaburi dam.

Officials in neighboring Laos, an impoverished and land-locked communist state, say the dam would cut poverty and generate revenue.

But Manmoon and her neighbors say Xayaburi and other proposed hydropower dams threaten their village, where fishing is a main source of income.

"If a dam is built, maybe there will be a flood and it could kill us, or maybe the river levels will be really low, and we won't have enough water to use or drink," Manmoon said.

Pushing forward
Across the river in Vientiane, the Lao capital, the Mekong River Commission's Joint Committee was preparing for a highly anticipated meeting on the Lao dam proposal.

At the meeting Tuesday, Laos said the project should move forward, claiming the dam will comply with international standards.

But Laos' lower Mekong neighbors - Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam - issued statements saying more information is needed about the dam's potential trans-boundary environmental impacts.

Vietnam issued the strongest statement, calling for a 10-year moratorium on new Mekong dams.

No agreement
The four lower Mekong countries failed to make a joint decision on the dam, but agreed to hold ministerial-level talks later this year.

Analysts say government statements and the decision to elevate MRC talks to the ministerial level raises the political stakes of the Xayaburi controversy.

Philip Hirsch is a professor of human ecology at the University of Sydney. He says that while the Mekong River Commission cannot stop Laos from building dams on the Mekong's main stream, the Mekong River Commission's protocols have allowed neighboring countries to put diplomatic pressure on Laos.

"If Laos was to go it alone [by building the Xayaburi dam] and not listen to the other countries, it would be doing so now against the express wishes of the other countries, and particularly against the express wishes of Vietnam, with which Laos has a very close relationship," noted Hirsch.

Face-off expected
Hirsch predicts there will be a face-off between ministers from Laos and neighboring Vietnam, which are both one-party communist states.

If the Xayaburi is built, Hirsch adds, it will be easier for other lower Mekong countries, particularly Cambodia, to build dams on the Mekong's main stream.

Laos "cannot ignore" critical statements from its lower Mekong neighbors, according to a Vietnamese environmentalist who requested anonymity.

If Laos builds the dam over high-level opposition, the country may jeopardize its reputation in the international community, the environmentalist said.

Under MRC protocol, the four lower Mekong countries are required to notify their neighbors if they plan to build dams on the river's main stream, but they do not need each other's permission to proceed with dam projects.

China, which borders Laos, already operates four dams on the Mekong's upstream reaches.

Environmental impact
Civil society groups and non-governmental organizations across the region have warned that building dams on the lower Mekong will hurt the environment and threaten food security and rural livelihoods.

Stuart Chapman is conservation director for the World Wildlife Fund's Greater Mekong Program. He says the Xayaburi dam would have adverse effects on sediment flows and fish migration.

"The Mekong River is unique, both in terms of diversity of the fish and the volume of fish that travel up and down it," Chapman explained. "So essentially any dam that is built across the Mekong is going to be a blockage to many fish species as they try and migrate. If they can't migrate, they don't breed, and this will lead to a collapse of the fishery."

Chapman says some North American dams have installed "fish ladders" and other devices that help fish pass through dams. But the technologies would not help many species of Mekong fish survive, he says.

A recent World Wildflie Fund (WWF) study claimed the environmental impact assessment conducted for the proposed Xayaburi dam does not meet international standards.

95 percent of the dam's 1,260 megawatts of electricity would be sold to Thailand, and a Thai company would operate the $3.5 billion dollar project.

Preliminary work on the dam has already begun, according to Thai media reports.

Renewable energy
Carl Middleton, Southeast Asia program director for the environmental group International Rivers, said that instead of sourcing power from Mekong dams, Thailand should focus on improving energy efficiency and developing sources of renewable energy.

"I think what needs to be taken into account is a more holistic decision-making process that actually recognizes the implications for livelihoods and food security if mainstream dams are built [on the Mekong River]," Middleton said.

An independent study commissioned by the MRC warned in October that Mekong hydropower dams would exacerbate food insecurity and cause "serious and irreversible" environmental effects.

Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Jim Webb warned in a statement that building dams on the Mekong's mainstream would jeopardize fishing and rice farming in the Mekong River Delta.

Approximately 60 million people depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods.
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Police Beatings, Arrests as Lake Resident Protest

Residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake development were violently dispersed by riot police outside City Hall Thursday, marking an escalation in their prolonged protest against eviction.

At least 11 demonstrators were arrested and four were injured in police beatings, as around 100 residents gathered to demand a meeting with city officials over their impending eviction from a development site.

More than 100 riot police stormed into the gathered crowd on Thursday morning, hitting protesters with batons and shocking them, while arresting nine women and two underage boys.

“The police beat me with a baton on my head, causing bleeding, and on my right hand, causing swelling,” Ngeth Khun, a 71-year-old resident told VOA Khmer after the incident. “I came here to protest and protect my house, but the police come and beat me like this. I am old. I have no power to fight back against the police.”

The violence comes just one day after donors warned Cambodia that it must do more to protect citizens caught in land disputes or facing evictions.

Chan Saveth, head of monitoring for the rights group Adhoc, called the police action brutal and unusual.

“We regard it as a serious human rights violation,” he said. “In particular the police do not think of humanity and of [the protesters] needs for a fair resolution.”

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, called the beatings a “shocking and entirely unjustifiable response to a peaceful protest.”

“The arrests of children and beatings of elderly women represent a new low in what has already been a hard-fought land conflict,” he said.

Residents want the city to stop Shukaku, Inc., a development group owned by a ruling party senator, from pumping fill into the lake and flooding homes they say they have not agreed to leave. They want more compensation from the company or a plot of land for resettlement.

Rights groups met with city officials late Thursday in an effort to secure the release of those detained in the morning.

Chan Saveth said Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema agreed to release them if they “recognize their mistake.”
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