Cambodia: Resolution of Boeung Kak Lake dispute in sight

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.

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9 responses to “Cambodia: Resolution of Boeung Kak Lake dispute in sight

  1. This week’s news is positive. A remarkable result for the remaining residents and their advocates. No doubt. But can the World Bank congratulate the government and get back to business as usual? Top questions for the day: The 12 hectares are reported as being set aside for ‘citizens’, but which citizens and under what conditions? What about the 3,000 odd families who were pressured to accept compensation and have already left the Boeung Kak Lake area? What about the 8,000+ other families involved in land disputes that the World Bank management report identifies as potentially being covered by its resettlement arrangements? And finally – does the World Bank really have much appetite for loin girding or will it – assuming it can find a way out of the current impasse – slink away from land and natural resources management and seek to rebuild its portfolio in sectors that are less sensitive?

  2. All pivotal questions, and particularly important to note that while the point of principle was secured in BKL, the devil will be in the details. You are also quite right to point out that the fact that the Bank limited its demands to concessions for the less than a quarter of the original residents of BKL who had hung on certainly must have made it easier for the Government to be magnanimous – but will look pretty arbitrary to those already forced out.

    On the Bank’s future plans, I would guess that the earlier management report in response to the Inspection Panel restricted the slinking options somewhat. My sense of the report was that the Bank’s willingness to engage in all other portfolios in future was to be to some degree contingent on continued progress in the land sector. That view would also be consistent with the Bank’s tactic in the present case of an across the board freeze.

  3. Things look a bit clearer on question 1 in the last 48 hours. The Municipality has published a map of the 12ha area that has been cut out of the Shukaku development (http://www.phnompenh.gov.kh/news-sub-decree-183-1715.html) and announced that residents in that area will be issued with titles for their current residences. This apparently covers about 750 of the remaining 800 or so families (http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2011081951143/National-news/lakeside-deal-skips-village-1.html). Nothing further on 2 or 3. On 4; hope you are right but if I were a gambler I would bet on the slink.

  4. Thanks for this and please keep the updates coming! The subdecree is worth a look even for the non-Khmei speakers as the appended map is very indicative of the situation there.

  5. The Municipality has now posted an English version of the Guidelines it will be using to implement the new arrangements at BKL on its website:

    http://www.phnompenh.gov.kh/news-implementation-guideline-of-sub-decree-no183-ankbk-1708.html

    The problem is that a number of the remaining families have land outside the pretty arbitrarily drawn boundaries of the 12 hectares. VOA reports that that the authorities are working on solutions for the families who are not being provided a land title though its not clear what that means.

    http://www.voanews.com/khmer-english/news/54-Families-Rejected-in-Lake-Resettlement-Deal-128335233.html

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