by Rhodri C. Williams
TN reader Bronwyn was kind enough to update my earlier post on the standoff between the Cambodian government and the World Bank over resettlement assistance to residents of the Boeung Kak Lake area of Phnom Penh. It seems that the Bank’s announcement that it had frozen funding for projects in Cambodia pending resolution of the dispute caught somebody’s attention.
As reported in the Khmer service of the Voice of America, the Cambodian government has now met BKL residents’ demands for land plots within their old neighborhood rather than assistance resettling elsewhere:
Thousands of Boeung Kak lake residents who have been fighting a protracted battle with Phnom Penh and a development company have seen their fortunes reversed and have been granted a small plot of land on which to resettle.
Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a subdecree Aug. 11, giving 1,000 families still living near the lake approximately 12 hectares of land on the planned 133-hectare development site.
On its face, this decision represents a significant concession by a regime that had, until recently, received word of the Bank’s decision with disdain. As the BBC recently reported, for instance:
The Cambodian authorities have reacted with little more than a shrug, perhaps mindful that billions of dollars of Chinese money is now pouring into the country, on top of hundreds of millions in aid from long-standing donors.
An official spokesman said that Cambodia “no longer appreciate[d]” World Bank loans.
As I pointed out in my previous post, the Chinese-backed investment in filling and developing the BKL area is part of a package worth over $2 billion, while the projects suspended by the World Bank to date totaled only in the millions.
On the other hand, there was little reason that the Cambodian government couldn’t have its cake and eat it too. The resettlement land set aside for remaining residents is less than ten percent of the total project area, and this concession alone was identified by the bank as adequate in order to unblock its projects in Cambodia.
Meanwhile, even before the decision to allocate plots was announced, BKL activists who had faced police beatings and seen their neighbors literally flooded out of their houses by dredging machines were explicit in their desire nevertheless to ingratiate themselves to the powerful and frequently arbitrary authorities. Concern with not burning any bridges was manifest in residents’ response to the Bank’s funding freeze announcement, as reported by VoA:
“People are so happy, and they hope that they will get houses,” said Non Sokheng, a representative of the villagers who was a guest on “Hello VOA” last week. “I also hope that assistance will continue to flow into Cambodia again after the issue over land conflict at Boeung Kak is completed.”
Tep Vanny, another representative who spoke on “Hello VOA,” said he hoped the government will work with the World Bank to resolve the problem.
“I believe the Cambodian government will show its spectacular ability, as a model for Cambodia’s development,” he said.
Indeed, the last quote, positing BKL as a development model, goes to the heart of the issue. The government’s concession in this case is certainly a precedent. Having researched forced evictions in Phnom Penh as far back as the early 1990s, I am not aware of any prior case in which the government deviated so clearly from its stubborn and self-defeating policy of evicting urban squatters wholesale and providing compensation or plots in unprepared and inappropriate peri-urban sites to the lucky few.
However, whether the BKL dispensation comes to be a model remains to be seen. The World Bank has clearly carried the battle, but the war remains to be fought. The Bank has joined with other agencies in calling for a general moratorium on urban evictions but conditioned future funding in this case only on the resolution of a particular urban eviction problem in BKL.
While the Bank is now left to gird its loins for the next urban eviction impasse, the Cambodian government may wish to consider whether its best interests may not lie in permanently internalizing the (relatively minor) costs of urban evictions, rather than provoking the Bank into future standoffs at the risk of further bad publicity and the loss of (not insignificant) aid and investment.