Tag Archives: China

The ‘grin nervously’ school of large-scale land dispute management

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC is doing a nice job following two unrelated land disputes on opposite sides of the Pacific that are raising related discomforts for the governments that wish fervently they would go away.

In the eastern hemisphere we have China, where the government has now promised to investigate the sale of farmland to factory owners in Lufeng City (Guangdong Province), which sparked several days of ‘sometimes violent’ protests. It is not a big secret that one of the biggest current sources of political grievance in China is the ability of local authorities to capture nearly the entire value ‘created’ by turning peri-urban farmland to industrial or residential use. However, the resulting protests usually tend to take the form of something short of what could be termed ‘riots‘. In this case anger over the loss of ‘ancestral farmland’ appears to have boiled over into something more ominous:

Several hundred people were reported to have attacked a police station and government buildings, and to have used earth-movers to smash down a wall around the seized land.

Although the situation was reported as calm over the weekend, locals interviewed expressed continued anger.

Meanwhile, in the western hemisphere, Evo Morales’ pro-indigenous government in Bolivia is being rocked by indigenous protesters. Just over a month ago, protests began in the capital, La Paz, over an announcement that a road was about to be built directly through the  Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park. Despite government protestations that the road (which is heavily backed by Brazil and would connect its territory with Pacific ports) would promote regional development, local Amazonian Indians began a one month protest march to La Paz. Locals not only expressed anger that they had not been consulted over the road, but also concerns that it would destroy both the human and natural ecology of the area:

Environmental groups and indigenous activists say the road will open the region up to illegal logging, as well as settlement by farmers from the highlands who grow coca leaf – the raw material for illegal cocaine.

With the deployment of police at Yucumo, halfway along the route to La Paz, the march turned to a confrontation earlier this month. Events have moved rapidly since, with the protesters initially breaking the blockade by using the Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca (who had come to negotiate with them) as  sort of perambulatory ‘human shield’. As of yesterday, the police had been ordered to disperse the protesters and force them onto buses home, sparking the resignation of Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon.

Where the Chinese government bought time by promising an investigation, Mr. Morales “offered to put the issue to a regional referendum” on Sunday. In both cases, and in different ways, the role of democracy is of some interest. In China, where democracy is absent, an investigation remains the only credible means of delivering some meaningful form of accountability (other than further mob self-help). However, in Bolivia, the situation is the opposite.

The rationale for recognizing the territories of indigenous peoples is typically the need to protect them – as minorities – from the effects of democratic decision-making processes they can never win. This is what makes both the failure to consult with the affected communities in advance and the proposal for a referendum now more than dubious. Even at the regional level, a majority can surely be found that would prefer commerce with Brazil to the less tangible benefits of living next to some of the world’s last functioning indigenous societies. At the national level, support for the road may be even stronger. Mr. Morales may be indigenous, but he is also an elected politician.

Week in links – Week 21/2011

Good riddance Mr. (rat)Kom(l)adic.

– The New York Times reports on how the global land rush functions in a less permissive environment. The BRIC shows cracks as China, not satisfied with importing raw materials from Brazil and selling it finished goods, begins to make a play for control of soya growing land. Brazil fights back by doing what China has, ironically, always done – restricting foreign ownership of land.

– Both National Public Radio and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have provided updates on the state of forced evictions in Cambodia. The NPR piece puts the ongoing controversy over the Boeung Kak Lake settlement in Phnom Penh (most recently blogged on here) into regional perspective by describing similar urban evictions in the Philippines and Thailand. The ABC story also describes the ongoing evictions related to an Australian funded project to reconstruct Cambodia’s rail lines, previously described by Natalie Bugalski here. However, the most impressive quote (by David Pred of BAB-Cambodia) concerns Boeung Kak and the latest innovations in forced eviction tech:

Families refused to accept the compensation that was being offered to them, so they just started directing the sand pumping machine at the houses and literally drowning them in mud.

– For those who may have inadvertently missed the latest high drama in Bosnian politics, Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, scored a little noticed and quite possibly Pyrrhic victory in convincing Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik not to hold a referendum on whether to say nasty things about State judicial institutions. Commentators on Balkan Insights noted that the whole thing may have been a very successful bluff by Mr. Dodik, and that the political establishment in Sarajevo continues to feed the type of resentment that props up Mr. Dodik by denigrating it.

Week in links – Week 18/2011

Its been a busy Spring and is likely to go on that way, so I’m hoping to just keep up with current HLP events with a steady – but temporarily less prolific – stream of postings in the immediate future. There continues to be quite a lot going on in the area, ranging from developing understandings of what the ‘global land rush‘ is all about to recently blogged on confirmations that acts of property destruction and confiscation are deemed crimes against humanity in settings such as Croatia and Kyrgyzstan.

I also look forward to introducing a few new reports and publications I’ve contributed to in the course of my work in recent months. These have tended to focus on issues emerging from protracted displacement, in which the blurring of lines that have traditionally divided supposed dichotomies such as relief vs development; migration vs displacement; and integration vs return has become impossible to ignore.

Finally, I’m very happy to say that my cross-posting arrangement with the Landesa blog continues. Landesa recently produced a pair of postings on women’s land rights in China and India that together touch on the numerous challenges facing efforts to foster meaningful gender equality in land and property relations. Last week’s posting features a survey on the effect on women of expropriation of rural land in China and its conversion to urban use. Tomorrow, TN will host a companion piece on the benefits – and the inherent limitations – of land purchase programs for women in India.

Meanwhile, in the HLP news last week:

-Nice to lead with a local story for once; here is The Local on a Swedish High Court decision upholding the grazing rights of Sami reindeer herders in Northern Sweden. Now that the Court has done some heavy lifting for the Government, one wonders if they will find the gumption to finally fulfill their longstanding pledge to ratify ILO Convention No. 169.

– Advocacy on behalf of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has begun a new chapter with the formal announcement that the traditional relationship between the Brookings Institution and the UN mechanism on internal displacement will continue. The name of the firm will change somewhat, with the Brookings-Bern nameplates coming down and new ‘Brookings-LSE’ ones going up in reference to the institutional home of the new UN Special Rapporteur on IDPs, Chaloka Beyani.

– The International Alliance of Inhabitants published a new report on “the practical strategies and experiences of communities who have directly struggled against forced evictions.”

– The BBC reports on Shell’s recent judicial setback in its attempt to assert ownership over oil terminal land in Nigeria claimed by the local community.

– And, finally, Bosnia commentator Matthew Parish has some fairly tart things to say about the ICTJ Gotovina decision (posted on here in TN) in an editorial in Balkan Insight.

Next steps in Cambodia

by Rhodri C. Williams

Nearly six weeks have passed since the Board of the World Bank issued a Report acknowledging both specific failures previously identified by the Bank’s Inspection Panel in the implementation of land programming in Cambodia as well as the general dilemma of working with a government whose past approach to land issues might fairly be described as predatory.

As described at the time in TN, one of the main findings of the Report was that the Bank had no choice but to continue to engage with the Cambodian Government on land issues until it was clear that such engagement was counterproductive. Although the Board implied that it might review its broader programming in Cambodia, it did so in an oblique manner, perhaps reflecting the fact that the arrival of investors such as China has reduced its bargaining power.

In a recent commentary for the Bretton Woods Project, Cambodia experts David Pred and Natalie Bugalski (who will, with any luck, grace these pages with another guest posting soon), highlighted the dilemma faced by a bank with declining leverage over borrowing governments and increasing commitments to be accountable to those affected by the projects it funds:

The predicament in which the Bank finds itself highlights the limits of its ability to be accountable to those harmed by its projects – even if it wants to be. The institutional architecture of the Bank requires it to rely on the cooperation of borrowing governments in any effort to remedy harms resulting from safeguard policy violations.  This structure becomes highly problematic when the government in question is notoriously unaccountable to its own people and is the perpetrator of the violations at hand.

More than 15 years since the establishment of the Inspection Panel, there continues to be no guarantee that claimants whose rights are vindicated by the Panel will receive any remedy whatsoever. If the Bank continues to lend to governments that consistently violate safeguard policy obligations and refuse to remedy harm, then it must be prepared to provide reparations unilaterally. In the absence of such a redress mechanism, the Bank will continue to suffer from an accountability deficit and demands for stripping the Bank’s legal immunity will grow ever louder.

With a sixty day deadline for the Bank’s management in Cambodia to report back to the Board on the implementation of its ‘revised Action Plan’ looming, the signs are not all good. In a piece in the Diplomat blog late last month, Irwin Loy noted that little had changed in the Phnom Penh neighborhood of Boeung Kak, where the whole controversy started. An eviction order issued around the same time as the Bank’s Report still stood, and residents were taking painful decisions to settle at the risk of losing everything. With a few weeks remaining, the Bank has a hard but important row to hoe.

World Bank Management Report on Cambodia acknowledges past mistakes and future challenges

by Rhodri C. Williams

Following up on yesterday’s post on the World Bank Executive Board’s consideration of an Inspection Panel report on Cambodia, a full Management Report and Recommendations is available today. All documentation related to the case including the underlying Investigation Report discussed yesterday and today’s Management Report are available on a dedicated page of the Inspection Panel website.

In brief, the Management Report presents a forthright picture of the difficulties encountered in carrying out a complex land administration reform and titling project with multiple objectives in a socio-political context that is difficult to reconcile (to say the least) with classic rule of law principles (for a concise and highly instructive description of the peripheral role occupied by formal law in Cambodia, TN readers are referred to a 2008 Briefing Note by the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program).

The Management Report includes an interesting set of lessons learned (pages 19-20), including the insight that outsourcing the issue of tenure security for the urban poor to parallel programs without ensuring coordination and nationwide coverage constituted a significant risk factor. It goes on to note the continuing deadlock with the Cambodian government over urban tenure security issues but nevertheless calls renewed efforts, including:

Continue reading

UN Secretary General urged to address Cambodia evictions

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a press release today, COHRE appealed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to use his current trip to Cambodia to seek an improvement in respect for housing rights. The PR focused in particular on the ongoing evictions from the Boeung Kak district of the capital Phnom Penh, which has been the subject of previous TN postings by both myself and Natalie Bugalski.

Sadly, it is a bit hard to picture the Secretary General spontaneously acceding to COHRE’s suggestion that he

meet with representatives of the Boeung Kak community during his visit to Cambodia this week, to “demonstrate the commitment of the UN to its core founding purpose of ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’ for all people everywhere.”

Indeed, it will be interesting to see if the SG will be so indelicate as to mention any of the rather alarming lurches Cambodia has made away from the extensive human rights obligations it undertook as part of the early 1990s peace process.

For some insights, I turned to Turtle Bay, where I was most immediately struck by China’s recent diplomatic successes in the UN, both in terms of obscuring the fact that its own weapons industry appears to be doing a roaring business in Sudan despite the embargo, and in the narrower area of defending states in its near abroad – in this case Burma – from human rights and war crimes scrutiny.

As I’ve noted in the past, Burma and Cambodia have a few things in common, ranging from their increasingly close economic and diplomatic ties with China to their poor human rights records. Although there has been a longstanding tendency on the part of development actors in Cambodia to dither a bit on human rights issues like forced evictions, one can’t help but wonder whether China’s recent bouts of vigorous UN diplomacy might not have a further chilling effect on what is already a fairly cooled down topic.

Is the Myanmar junta preparing to “eat the country” a la Cambodia?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The NY Times this morning has picked up an interesting story on a mysterious but extensive sale of state assets underway in Myanmar (Burma). The items on the block run the gamut from the national airline, mines, farmland and factories to health and education facilities. The Times notes that many of the deals seem to have been wrapped up with the existing regime-friendly oligarchs and the military and that the proceeds are likely to aid the current regime’s upcoming election campaign; splashing out can presumably help the incumbents win the 26% of seats they will need, on top of the 25% they have constitutionally reserved for themselves, in order to rule the country.

Nevertheless, the relinquishment of direct state control over many of the means of production is seen as a potentially positive step toward a more liberal variant of ‘managed democracy’:

… the privatizations could also have the effect of injecting some competition into what is an almost Soviet-style economic system, and some analysts here say they may herald a shift in direction. Reformers in the government, they say, may be hoping to follow a path similar to that of China or Vietnam, where the economies have been liberalized but the ruling party has remained firmly in charge and has tolerated little dissent.

Sadly, invoking even the unapologetically authoritarian regimes in China and Vietnam may be setting the bar a bit high. Another viable model in southeast Asia may be Cambodia, where the destruction of both traditional and modern institutions under the Khmer Rouge regime has been followed by an astonishing thirty year run in power by the regime – and the man, Prime Minister Hun Sen – installed by the Vietnamese after their 1979 incursion.

As described in my 2008 report for COHRE, as well as by many other observers, Hun Sen has been incredibly astute at drawing on Cambodia’s historical tradition of patronage in order to shore up political loyalties based on debt and revenue streams while donning and doffing political ideologies as necessary to maximize international support.

Notably in analyzing Burma, Hun Sen was early out in privatizing land, not only because he saw which way the wind was blowing in the late 1980s, but also because it allowed him to lock in this valuable asset for his supporters and exclude restitution claims by the 300,000 exiles in neighboring Thailand, with whom he could reasonably suspect he would soon be forced to come to some type of political settlement.

Since the peace agreement in 1991, the regime has continued to treat the country’s land resources as a slush fund, resulting in the widespread grant of dubious concessions, land-grabbing, speculation and ultimately flight to wretched urban informal settlements for many of the country’s hard-pressed rural majority. Land has remained such an issue that it has not infrequently been invoked as Cambodia’s number one human rights problem – an impressive achievement considering that the competition includes the muzzling of press freedoms, arbitrary arrests and detention and a tradition of discouraging the political opposition that began spectacularly in 1997 with Hun Sen’s party killing or exiling most of the high-ranking members of its main coalition partner.

The rate at which the Hun Sen regime has continued to “eat the country” (in a local phrase describing patronage behavior that will be eerily familiar to Kenya observers) appears to have accelerated recently in light of at least two developments. First, an increasing amount of Cambodia’s development aid is now coming from China. Where the West has traditionally encumbered their extensive support to the Cambodian budget with troublesome (if relatively easily circumvented) human rights demands, China has been more laissez faire in attaching conditions to its investments. Indeed, the relatively superficial impact of three decades of Western human rights evangelism was recently laid painfully bare when China used its influence to secure the refoulement of twenty ethnic Uighurs who had sought asylum in Cambodia. The UNHCR, which had previously viewed Cambodia as “a refugee model for southeast Asia“, sent personnel to the airport in vain to try to physically stop the deportation.

A second factor has been the global financial crisis and the accompanying trend toward the acquisition of land in developing countries by companies and governments of developed ones. Given the continued lack of rule of law and rent-seeking behavior of Cambodian officialdom, the Guardian’s spectacular assertion in April 2008 that foreign interests had been permitted to buy nearly half of the country’s territory was all too credible. Although Cambodia has subsequently moved toward more uniform regulation of foreign investment in land and property, concerns remain that this could be another instance of legislatively closing the barn doors after the horses have already bolted. Indeed, the recent discovery of oil reserves in Cambodia has highlighted the extent to which natural resources, like land, have been squandered for short term profit. Global Witness alleged in 2009 that

… rights to exploit oil and mineral resources have been allocated behind closed doors by a small number of powerbrokers surrounding the prime minister and other senior officials. The beneficiaries of many of these deals are members of the ruling elite or their family members. Meanwhile, millions of dollars paid by oil and mining companies to secure access to these resources appear to be missing from the national accounts.

Last week, Global Witness condemned a new wrinkle in Cambodia’s marriage of modern investment promotion and traditional predatory government behavior, namely the formation of  forty-two “official partnerships” between private businesses and Cambodian military units. This program, apparently backed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is described as effectively turning the military into a private security force available to the highest bidders:

“Yet again, Cambodia’s donors are being mocked by the government’s blatant violation of basic governance and transparency standards. The existence of a strong patronage system between the military and private business is not new. But what is different and shocking is that it has become official government policy,” said [GW Campaigns Director Gavin] Hayman. “Donors should send a firm and decisive message that Cambodia’s military exists to protect the people, not the financial assets of a privileged few.”

The World Bank has repeatedly noted that economic growth in Cambodia, while consistent and high over the last years, has tended to increase inequality. In a report last year, the Bank identified inequality as one of three “challenging areas for further analysis” along with urban management and environmental stress:

Various indicators show that inequality has indeed increased significantly over the past four years: such rapid increase in inequality is not only politically and socially undesirable, it also tends to be inimical to sustained rapid growth.  (executive summary, xvi)

The Bank also noted in a report two years earlier that inequality was exacerbated by “increased concentration of land ownership, together with insecure land tenure” (executive summary, i). In a 2006 poverty assessment of Cambodia, the Bank noted that Cambodia’s inequality not only set it apart from other emerging economic powers in the region, but threatened the country’s potential to continue its post-Cold War growth spurt:

The experience of countries (e.g. Vietnam) which have created broad-based growth which includes the poor to a greater degree suggests also that such patterns of shared growth are more stable (and often higher) than growth patterns (such as that seen in Cambodia) which are based on a few enclave sectors and in which the benefits of growth accrue disproportionately to those who are already rich. (page 30)

Returning to Myanmar, one is left with the conclusion that the Vietnamese development path may would be highly desirable but may not be in the cards. For a regime that is hungry to remain in power, eager to consolidate conflict gains before engaging in political reconciliation, and now apparently willing to treat property it supposedly held in trust for the country as a means of securing short-term cash and political loyalty, the Cambodian development path appears a lot more likely.

And in a final touch of sad irony, the timing and circumstances of this belated economic ‘opening’ are such that it is likely to destroy one of the few potential assets accrued during the decades of dirigiste stagnation, namely preservation of a capital city in Asia that had remained beyond the reach of the wave of charmless high rise megalomania that had overtaken many of its peers. As reported by the Times:

In recent days, the country’s Privatization Commission produced a list of 176 assets in Yangon, the main city, to be auctioned off sometime over the next few weeks. The 18-page list, which was shown to prospective buyers, includes a wide-ranging roster of buildings in Yangon worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The list, which covers only part of the privatization plan, features many former government offices, notably the lakeside office of the attorney general, the national archives, the auditor general’s headquarters, the archaeology department and the Ministry of Industry.

The buildings were abandoned when the capital was moved to the more remote location of Naypyidaw in 2005, and their sale would seem to ensure that the move was irreversible.

The businessman said it was likely that dozens of colonial-era buildings would be torn down. “I feel like I’m bleeding,” he said.

We can only hope that the decision to supplement bogus democratization with crony privatization does not leave Myanmar worse off than when it had neither.