'No Decision' Made Yet on Cambodia Loans: World Bank

Cambodian anti-riot police block people from the Boeung Kak lakeside community during a land rights protest in Phnom Penh, June 17, 2013.

The World Bank has not yet reached a decision on whether to lift a ban on loans to Cambodia, a Bank official has said, contradicting local media reports that the international financing institution would resume loans suspended three years ago over allegations of violent land grabs by the country’s ruling elite.

“I would like to confirm that no decision has been made as yet about resuming new financing commitments by the [World Bank’s] International Development Association (IDA) to Cambodia,” the World Bank’s Country Director for South East Asia Ulrich Zachau said in an Oct. 17 letter to the World Organization for Human Rights USA.

The group, which has taken the Cambodian government and other groups to an international court over violent land grabs from poor farmers, had sought clarification from the World Bank on the potential re-engagement of the bank in Cambodia.

New financing commitments by the Bank will be considered “only in conjunction with a new Country Engagement Note (CEN), which itself would follow broad-based consultations with all key stakeholders,” Zachau said.

“We welcome input and participation from all segments of civil society,” he added.

The World Bank halted funding to Cambodia in 2011 after state security forces helped to violently evict thousands of families from the Boeung Kak Lake community in the capital Phnom Penh to make way for a real estate project in one of the country’s most high-profile land-grab cases.

“We continue to monitor the situation in the Boeung Kak Lake area and we remain committed to supporting Cambodia as it tackles critical development challenges,” Zachau said.

Criminal complaint

The World Bank statement follows the filing earlier this month of a criminal complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague focusing on “the land eviction issue in Cambodia,” Morton Sklar—Founding Executive Director Emeritus of the World Organization for Human Rights USA—told RFA’s Khmer Service this week.

“The World Bank letter confirms the fact that the Bank believes it is important to give attention to this problem in a meaningful way, and that they can’t simply lift their loan ban while a major international criminal case is pending,” Sklar said.

Sklar noted that the World Bank letter directly contradicts recent reports in Cambodian media that had indicated the World Bank was preparing to lift its freeze on loans in December.

“[The letter] indicates that they recognize that minor remedial action in the Boeung Kak eviction situation is not sufficient—a much more thorough treatment of the land eviction issue on a nationwide basis has to take place before a lifting of the ban can be justified.”

Sia Phearum, Secretariat Director of Cambodia’s Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO working on land dispute issues, welcomed the World Bank’s statement, adding that the Bank should maintain its ban on loans until all disputes are settled nationwide.

“I welcome the Bank’s move to continue suspending loans to Cambodia, because the government has delayed in resolving land disputes, and the villagers who have been affected by those disputes are not yet happy with the government’s solutions.”

The Cambodian government should work hard to resolve land disputes, because when the people are satisfied, they will appeal to the Bank to resume its loans, he said.

Reached by RFA on Tuesday, Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith refused to comment on the Bank’s statement.

'Ruling elite'

A complaint filed by London-based lawyer Richard Rogers at The Hague-based International Criminal Court earlier this month called for  Cambodia’s “ruling elite” and other groups to be investigated for crimes against humanity for what it claimed were violent land grabs that had displaced poor farmers.

The forced land evictions by senior officials, the security forces, and government-connected business leaders are part of a “widespread and systematic attack” on the country’s civilian population, the complaint said.

Land disputes are a bitter problem in Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen established a land titling program in late 2012 relying on more than 2,000 student volunteers to measure plots and distribute documentation, but critics have said the campaign lacks transparency and independent monitoring.

Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-70 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.

Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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