by Rhodri C. Williams
As reliably as the annual arrival of the wet season, the protracted struggle over who controls Cambodia’s land has entered into another one of its hot phases. On one side, local communities supported by a coalition of national and international NGOs continue to defend their rights to land and homes they have built their lives around. On the other side, the Cambodian authorities continue to almost ostentatiously prioritize the interests of international investors over those of their own constituencies. The latest salvo takes the form of an open letter to the World Bank signed by over 100 civil society organizations urging incoming President Jim Yong Kim to continue his predecessor Robert Zoellick’s firm stance on forced evictions.
As before, ground zero for the forced evictions debate in Cambodia remains the Boeung Kak Lake (BKL) neighborhood of the capital Phnom Penh. While the open letter points out recent killings outside of Phnom Penh (including an environment activist and a 14 year old girl in the course of an eviction), the incident triggering the current wave of activism has been the arrest of 15 mostly female BKL residents, 13 for having had the temerity to protest against being expelled from their homes and two more for having volunteered to testify on the others’ behalf.
The arrest and sentencing of the BKL 15 (most got over two years on trumped up charges) is the latest phase of a long-running controversy that first led the Cambodian government break off its long-running cooperation with the World Bank on land registration, and then saw the World Bank take a principled stand in favor of meaningful reform. The twists and turns of the BKL affair are lucidly presented in Natalie Bugalski and David Pred’s guest-post earlier this week. They have also been the topic of past postings on TN that documented:
- The decision of the Cambodian government to walk away from the multi-million dollar Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) when the World Bank suggested (under pressure from the late, lamented COHRE) that greater priority be given to urban tenure security, beginning with BKL;
- The subsequent deliberations of the World Bank Inspection Panel on whether the Bank had violated its own policy on involuntary resettlement by being implicated in the BKL evictions;
- The November 2010 decision by the Panel finding a breach of the Bank’s Policy and the subsequent deliberations by the Board of the Bank on how to proceed in Cambodia;
- The Board’s March 2011 decision to acknowledge its past shortcomings and insist on compliance with the Policy in future engagement with land issues in Cambodia;
- Mounting questions over how this firmer line would be implemented in light of lack of improvements on the ground;
- The August 2011 revelation that the Bank had suspended new project funding in Cambodia pending a resolution of the BKL issue;
- The subsequent concession of the Prime Minister in granting title to the remaining holdout families in BKL that had not yet been evicted; and
- the Government’s return to form, with forced evictions continuing at the edges of the BKL neighborhood and elsewhere.
The concerns expressed in the current open letter relate to signs that the World Bank is considering withdrawing its freeze on funding new projects in Cambodia. In earlier statements, the Bank had asserted that it would not resume funding until “an agreement is reached with the residents of Boeung Kak Lake”. However, while the Government’s earlier grant of title to BKL holdouts represents a significant breakthrough, it does not apply to as many as 85% of the residents of the neighborhood forced out under extreme duress earlier. And as noted in the open letter, the entire BKL community has demonstrated exemplary solidarity, with current title beneficiaries continuing to hold out for an “agreement” that does not exclude their less fortunate former neighbors.
At a broader level, one might wonder whether even a full resolution of the now notorious BKL issue alone should be seen as sufficient, particularly in light of the Bank’s association with an earlier joint call by Cambodian development partners for a general moratorium on urban evictions. On the other hand, full satisfaction for BKL’s battered residents would have tremendous symbolic value. As demonstrated by NGO statements in support of the open letter, BKL has taken on regional, if not global significance as a concerted stand against arbitrary government land takings. Meanwhile, the Government’s paranoid reaction to attempts by the human rights group Licadho to speak with the BKL 15 at Prey Sar prison demonstrate that it is well aware of the symbolic power of this case:
…two guards, dressed in unmarked grey clothing distinct from regular guards at Prey Sar, ordered those who ventured near the fence closest to the Boeung Kak women to move away.
Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek, who led a contingent of about 50 youths into Prey Sar for the event, spoke to prisoners up close through the fence, but when she began to move in the direction of the Boeung Kak prisoners, a guard told her to clear away.
“In my long experience of going to Cambodian prisons, it was the first time I was prevented to see prisoners,” she told the Post. “They did this because they had orders coming from the upper stratum of the regime, which regards Boeung Kak lake as a sensitive question.”
As noted previously in this blog, the World Bank does not enjoy exclusive or unlimited power to shape Cambodian policy, nor should it. However, recent events have demonstrated that the Cambodian government does consider the resources that the Bank provides worth an occasional policy shift. It would be a shame – and a mistake – for the Bank to needlessly cash in its chips before seeing the Government’s hand.