Back to business as usual in Cambodia?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Followers of this blog will have noticed a pattern of periodic eruptions of postings regarding land issues in Cambodia. Last Spring, it was brought on by a decision by the World Bank  Executive Board to give effect to an earlier Inspection Panel ruling finding fault with the Bank’s implementation of land titling programs. Later last Summer, it related to the Bank’s resulting standoff with the Cambodian government over setting aside land for people facing eviction from the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) neighborhood of Phnom Penh – a staring match that the Bank appeared to win, albeit without guarantees any further reforms would ensue.

Having left Cambodia to its own devices for a while, my attention was drawn back when frequent TN guest-blogger Natalie Bugalski informed me about a recent Amnesty International report that she wrote outlining the experience of five women who have experienced forced evictions in the country. One of them, Vanny, has led protests against the Boeung Kak Lake development:

On 11 August 2011, the community achieved a partial victory when the prime minister ordered a portion of land to be handed over to the remaining 800 families for onsite housing in plots with legal ownership.

Vanny said: “A lot of people think that this is the first success of people’s demonstration… it’s a great example for other communities all over the country,” she said. Yet Vanny still feels insecure. “When I leave my house, I don’t know whether I can expect to come home or not.”

Vanny has good reason to be concerned, as she now faces a defamation charge brought by the Municipality of Phnom Penh.  In addition, eight more homes on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake were destroyed by bulldozers on 16 September, the families left homeless.

The destruction last September of the homes left out of the BKL deal support concerns that the Government may plan to tailor its concession to the World Bank as narrowly as possible. This inference is also supported by the heedless brutality with which the evictions were apparently carried out. The matter-of-fact nature of such violence is captured in Heather Stilwell’s report for Asia Calling on BKL resident Suong Sophoan’s quixotic attempt at civil disobedience:

“I was born in Boeung Kak, so I must protect my place and these people. I stood in front of the tractors to stop them and to solve this problem with peaceful non-violence. At the same time, I tell them that if you want to destroy these houses, you must destroy me first.”

Police kicked him and beat him with guns. They left him on the ground, unconscious and bloody. Then they destroyed the homes.

Natalie reported that the Government has dismissed Amnesty’s “black report” as shameful. To get a taste of official policy on land, I checked Cambodia’s London Embassy website, which is frequently tasked with composing baroquely worded refutals of international criticism (follow links to ‘Ambassador’, then ‘Media Releases’ and ‘Responses’). On the front page I noticed a curious call for investment (“Rich in farmland”) that mixed disarming candor (“it is unclear exactly what the deals with Qatar and Kuwait are…”) with an intriguing reference to working with small farmers:

The Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) approved agricultural investment projects worth a combined $499.7 million in the first eight months of 2009, in comparison to $81.7 million worth of projects approved over the same period in 2008.

For investors looking to grow and process crops, Cambodia is an ideal location with plenty of land available for agricultural concessions. The Cambodian agriculture & agro-industry sector has developed significantly in recent years and has great potential for investment, employment creation and as a source for economic growth.

Qatar and Kuwait have also signed agreements to secure long-term food supplies for their countries. The UAE is also keen to explore opportunities in rice cultivation in Cambodia. It is unclear exactly what the deals with Qatar and Kuwait are, but Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hor Namhong, told reporters that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with Kuwait agreeing to finance a $350,000 irrigation project that would cover 130,000 hectares of rice fields.

Cambodia is rich in farmland and hopes to attract more investment to the sector. The country wants to develop its rice exports and therefore welcomes investors, especially those willing to work with small farmers. In return for investments such as credit and technical assistance, farmers would be contracted to sell their crops to the investor.

However, anyone hoping that this notice may portend a fresh approach to rural land and natural resource concessions would be well-advised to skim the national news page of the Phnom Penh Post. Highlights currently include a judge severely beaten by seven suspected illegal loggers and left by the roadside, as well as coastal villagers cut off by a military checkpoint in order to ease them off land conceded to a Chinese concern. In the latter case, the type of frustration expressed by urban BKL residents is evident in a less guarded form:

“If this had happened in the past, I would join the Khmer Rouge to protect my land,” said Sim Navy, adding that she was furious with the government for granting the land she lives on to a Chinese company.

So it seems that the Cambodian authorities have reverted to form? Given the scale of land grabbing and forced evictions in Cambodia’s recent history, it would be unfair to expect the World Bank to tackle the issue on its own. On the other hand, it is not clear that weighty international donors and policymakers are lining up behind the Bank’s efforts. And at the end of the day, the Cambodian authorities should know better. Alongside all the reports and recommendations and rhetoric, there is the simple truth that behavior like land-grabbing is destructive of any sense of national purpose or civic trust. In an incisive blog post from last Fall, an expat in Cambodia described the effect of the despoliation of land he and his Cambodian wife had bought on one decent person:

Whilst many of the landowners had had their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and had been physically assaulted, I initially told myself that we had only lost land and money. However, the events had a traumatic effect on my family. By this time my father-in-law was very sick with cancer (he has since passed away, a week ago). In those last few months of his life he began to question out loud whether he’d been a fool to have lived a life of honesty and integrity in Cambodia. He felt responsible that he had recommended the land to us because he knew the sellers to be decent people, and he regretted that he had left his family poor due to his fairness whilst other unscrupulous people in positions of power were giving their families a good life. A good man’s spirit was crushed.

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2 responses to “Back to business as usual in Cambodia?

  1. Pingback: New report on railway rehabilitation and displacement in Cambodia – Natalie Bugalski to guest-post | TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: World Bank urged to stand firm on land-related rights violations in Cambodia | TerraNullius

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