At B Kak Lake, Hopes Are Pinned on World Bank

Outside An Si Yon’s narrow, two-story home on the edge of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake, the debris of a crumbling neighborhood fleeing a CPP senator’s ambitious development project lay at her feet—literally.

Around her, neighbors who have acted on government eviction notes and accepted Shukaku Inc’s compensation have dismantled their homes brick-by-brick, a condition the firm has set for its payouts.

Those still hanging on have used the rubble to lift the dirt road outside Ms Si Yon’s home above the rainy season floods that have come ever since Shukaku started filling in the lake in 2008.

But despite all the signs around her—including a 99-year lease the city gave Shukaku that automatically slated all 4,000 families around the lake for eviction—Ms Si Yon and her husband have held out. The World Bank, which ac-cepted some blame for the evictions this week and pledged to help, has only buoyed their hopes.

“If the NGOs and the World Bank support us, we will be able to live here,” said Ms Si Yon’s hus­band, a Phnom Penh police officer who declined to give his name for fear of losing his job.

Half a world away in Wash­ington, the World Bank’s board of directors on Tuesday backed an independent report finding that mistakes the Bank made in a $24.3 million project helped strip the families of their land rights.

“Ambiguities in the project de­sign…in part contributed to the harm that [residents] are facing,” the report said. When problems at the lake were brought to their attention, management “failed to act.”

Begun in 2002, the Land Management and Administration Project aimed to bring the government’s land-titling program in line with international standards and issue a million titles to mostly poor Cambodian in the process.

Like Ms Si Yon, residents around the lake are taking heart in this week’s decision.

“The people have hope that the World Bank will help…because I think that many foreigners and countries now support us,” said Tep Vanny, another lake resident. “Boeng Kak residents are depending on the World Bank.”

“The World Bank has admitted its mistake. They have to find a way to push the government to help us,” said Ly Mom, who has led the community’s protests against the evictions.

She hopes that the Bank’s money will work where the people’s voices have failed.

“We still have hope in the World Bank because it is a donor,” she said. “Our country needs donations from foreign countries. So the government has to offer us a solution.”

In a January report released this week, the Bank’s country team proposed the possibility of reducing future support to Cambodia unless the government steps up efforts to help the families.

Officials for the Bank’s country team were abroad yesterday and unavailable for comment.

In its January report to the Bank’s board, the country team admitted that it had made little headway in convincing the government to do more for the families. The government’s refusal to accept that the families were ever eligible for titles has left the Bank with “limited options,” it said.

But in an action plan approved by the Bank’s board of directors Tuesday, the country team pledged to keep trying.

Its efforts do not appear to be getting off to a good start.

“How can they have the right to request [titles] when they stole the land,” Phnom Penh deputy governor Pa Socheatvong said yesterday. “They stole the state land, and we take it back without punishing them.”

In its own statement yesterday, the Land Management Ministry also dug in its heels.

“None of these areas have been registered as a state land by LMAP,” it said. “Therefore, it is not under the conditions set for social safeguards in the credit agreement [with the Bank], and they have not been triggered.”

The ministry also said LMAP’s Project Appraisal Document made it clear that disputed areas like the lake would be excluded from the project.

Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, the NGO that helped the lake families file the complaint that triggered the Bank’s independent investigation of LMAP, disagreed.

“The ministry’s defense does not reflect the facts of the law,” said David Pred, the group’s executive director. “The PAD is not a legal document. It is a World Bank project document. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the PAD or within Cambodian legal procedures that provides a basis for excising areas.”

When the commune became eligible for title applications in 2006, he said, the LMAP team refused to survey the lake residents’ plots—in violation of existing laws—telling families the area would be registered later. Instead, City Hall granted Shukaku a lease to the area the next year.

“Boeng Kak villagers submitted a complaint to the cadastral commission to resolve their dispute with the state in 2008, and the commission refused to accept it,” Mr Pred said. “The bottom line is that the Boeng Kak residents have been denied any process by which they could assert their claims and have them fairly adjudicated to the law.”

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