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World Bank Warns Arrests of Cambodian Activists Could Chill Foreign Investment


The World Bank has warned Cambodia that recent arrests of government critics could have a chilling affect on potential foreign investment. But pressure from the international community may hold little weight inside the country.

World Bank Country Director Ian Porter said Monday that the detention of outspoken political activists sends a worrying message to prospective investors and development partners about Cambodia's commitment to transparency and sustainable development.

Three human rights leaders were jailed on defamation charges last week for allowing a banner critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen's border policy to be hung at a human rights event. A journalist and teacher's union president also were jailed in October for allegedly making defamatory comments related to a new border treaty Mr. Hun Sen signed with Vietnam.

Opponents to the treaty say Mr. Hun Sen gave away or sold land to Vietnam, which he denies. The two countries are historical foes and since Vietnam occupied Cambodia for a decade after the fall of the Khmer Rouge government in 1979, many Cambodians have been sensitive about signs of Vietnamese influence over the government.

Porter called Cambodia a country with extensive corruption and weak accountability. He says greater openness and more vigorous public scrutiny, not less, are critical to its development policy.

Ou Virak, spokesman for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, whose top two leaders are now in jail, says donors such as the World Bank want to know how they are spending their money. He called on donors to pressure the government to allow dissent and to become more transparent.

"I want to appeal to all the democratic loving people around the world to make sure to help build a democratic Cambodia, to ensure that we will have the protection of human rights, to ensure that the Cambodian people will receive the benefit of development of true democracy," said Mr. Virak.

The crackdown has virtually decapitated the political opposition. A leading opposition politician, Sam Rainsy, fled the country last year fearing arrest. He has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for defaming government leaders. Another lawmaker sits in jail for allegedly creating a shadow army. Now human rights activists, long seen as an unofficial check on government power in Cambodia, find themselves facing arrest.

Despite growth in the garment and tourism sectors, Cambodia's economy still relies heavily on international assistance.

The World Bank has provided Cambodia with nearly $600 million in loans and grants and nearly $90 million in trust funds since 1992.

A government spokesman recently said it is more important for the government to focus more on its image among voters in the run-up to national elections than about donors' opinions. He says once the prime minister squashes accusations that he sold Cambodian land to Vietnam, the West will understand why the government had to sue its critics.

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