The World Bank has mishandled a land titling program in Cambodia that led to the eviction of thousands of residents from a lake district in central Phnom Penh, according to an independent inspection panel that evaluated the project.
The panel’s lead investigator said the bank’s mismanagement of the project has caused “grave harm” to the residents of Boeung Kak lake, many of whom have been forced out of the area by the government over the past two years.
The World Bank itself had ordered the setting up of the panel to assess the Cambodian Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) in response to a request by a group of NGOs on behalf of the lake residents.
The bank had asked the Cambodian government to suspend the project to facilitate a study on complaints by residents over evictions and other issues, but the government responded by canceling the project altogether in 2009.
The investigation focused on whether the bank had complied with its own policies during the design, implementation, and supervision of the LMAP, which was launched in 2002 with U.S. $24.3 million in financing by the bank to help Cambodians across the country obtain property deeds.
While the inspection panel applauded the World Bank for providing more than a million households nationwide with land titles through the project, it described the bank’s response to complaints of unjust eviction filed by Boeung Kak lake residents as “delayed” and “inadequate.”
“Management did not adequately follow up on strengthening public awareness and community participation, and there were delays in implementing dispute resolution mechanisms and the assistance to improve state land management,” the panel said.
Denied due process
Inspection panel chief Roberto Lenton said that lake residents had been denied due process in assessing their claims before being evicted by the government in violation of agreed procedures.
“The panel found that the evictions took place in violations of the bank policy on involuntary resettlement and resulted in grave harm to the affected families and community,” he said.
World Bank president Robert Zoellick responded to the panel’s findings by saying that the organization had made repeated calls to Phnom Penh to end evictions and hoped for “a positive government response.”
“We are deeply troubled and frustrated about the people who are being forced from their homes,” Zoelleck said.
Zoellick left open the possibility of resolving the land issue.
"We are open to other ways to help these people."
Half of the nearly 4,000 Boeung Kak lake families have been forced from their homes, and last week the government warned the remaining residents that they would face legal proceedings if they refused to accept compensation ahead of their pending evictions to make way for a commercial venture.
Residents have maintained for years that government compensation packages were too low.
A company owned by a politician from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party plans to redevelop the 330-acre (133-hectare) lake district into a luxury residential area, office complex, and shopping center.
Many residents say they are entitled to the property under Cambodia’s Land Law, though few of them possess titles, because they have squatted there for decades.
Police and company workers have threatened and harassed the residents in attempts to prevent them from holding meetings and from peacefully protesting against the forced eviction.
Police have also used excessive force against some residents when they gathered to bring the issue to the attention of visiting dignitaries and Cambodian politicians, rights groups said.
Phnom Penh Mayor Kep Chuktema particularly was blamed for not meeting the residents over their complaints, said Ly Mom, a representative of the Boeung Kak residents.
Chan Saveth, senior investigator for the Cambodian Human Rights Development Association (ADHOC), said that the residents did not know who to turn to for help in resolving the dispute.
“The people of Boeung Kak have exhausted all possible means in trying to obtain an appropriate solution to their problem. They have used all possible peaceful means, including the submitting of petitions, group advocacy, demonstrations, and the practicing of rituals,” he said.
“So far, they have not been offered any acceptable solution.”
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country. This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
During his visit to Cambodia in February, the U.N. Special Rapporteur to Cambodia discussed land rights issues with ADHOC director Thun Saray.
“We propose a swift and satisfactory solution for those who have been affected by the land conflict,” Thun Saray said in an interview recounting their conversation.
U.K.-based Amnesty International said in a recent statement that as party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other international human rights treaties which prohibit related human rights violations, Cambodia’s government “has an obligation to stop forced evictions and to protect the population from forced evictions.”
Reported by Tin Zakarya and Uon Chhin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Chivita. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.