Evicted Railway Families Await ADB’s Help

In 2011, Oeun Phirun took out a $450 loan from the Asian Development Bank, using half to buy a used motorbike and spending the rest on a small flock of ducks and chickens he hoped to raise.

His family and about 1,000 others have been evicted from their homes along the country’s long-forgotten train tracks to make room for a $143 million railway rehabilitation project funded mostly by the ADB.

Oeun Phirun peers out of the one-room home he shares with 15 relatives at a resettlement site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. (Phorn Bopha/The Cambodia Daily)
Oeun Phirun peers out of the one-room home he shares with 15 relatives at a resettlement site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. (Phorn Bopha/The Cambodia Daily)

About 100 of those families, including Mr. Phirun’s, were moved from central Phnom Penh to Trapaing Anhchanh, a remote resettlement site on the far outskirts of town in Pur Senchey district, an hour away from the city center.

Microloans to help evictees buy poultry were part of the ADB’s efforts to help make up for the homes and jobs the families were losing because of its project. But Mr. Phirun’s ducks and chickens all died within a year, and he still owes the bank $450, plus interest.

“They all died and I didn’t make any money,” the 67-year-old said Tuesday.

He also had to borrow another $1,000—which he still owes—to build a new home on an empty plot. The house is a modest one-room affair of weathered wood planks straining to hold an extended family of 16.

In February, the ADB finally admitted that it bore much of the blame for the mounting debt the evictees were taking on. Last month, the bank finished drafting an action plan to provide the families with fairer compensation, and is due to make it public, as soon as it reaches the ADB’s board of directors for approval.

Until then, the ADB won’t say anything about the plan. But Mr. Phirun knows what he wants.

“I want the ADB to pay my debt,” he said. “I want them to pay my debt and help us get jobs. I want them to make our lives better.”

Before it started drafting its action plan for the families, the ADB released a damning report by its compliance review panel laying out the many ways the bank had ignored its own safeguard policies over the course of the railroad resettlement. The panel called for a total “mind shift” in the way the bank conceived of the families being evicted by its projects.

It also made a few broad recommendations that the ADB board quickly approved, including a “deficit payment scheme” to properly compensate the families. But instead of an ADB grant, the recommendations suggested covering the extra payouts—projected to cost up to $4 million—with a loan to the Cambodian government.

The recommendations also called for a plan to help families pay down the loans they have taken on since their evictions—loans that the ADB admits it pushed on the families. But the recommendations suggested offering the families new loans with better interest rates, rather than forgiving the debt altogether.

Another loan won’t do much good for Vin Sreymao. She moved to the Trapaing Anhchanh site with her husband after losing her home near central Phnom Penh three years ago.

Before moving, the couple could make $25 dollars a day running a cooked food stall for other families living along the train tracks. Here, they each earn $5 a day hauling heavy bags of rice from a local warehouse to the nearest main road. Since Ms. Sreymao gave birth to their second child three months ago, only her husband has been earning a wage.

They were given $800 and a 7-meter-by-15-meter plot of empty land as compensation for their eviction, but had to borrow another $500 to build a simple one-room wooden house. They still owe the full principal on the debt and have repaid only the interest for the past three years. Even so, they ran out of money to finish the back wall of their home, which is still covered with a well-worn sheet of green tarpaulin.

“I have been living here all these years and I don’t even have enough money to finish that wall,” Ms. Sreymao said from a chair just outside the front door. At her feet, her three-year-old daughter fiddled quietly with a half-deck of playing cards.

The family used their land certificate as collateral for the loan and fears losing it if they default. Like her neighbors, Ms. Sreymao said the ADB owes them a fair deal, not a speedy payout that may still leave them short.

The bank has admitted that paying off the families quickly, as the review panel recommends, will still leave some without the money they deserve.

“I just want the ADB to help us get back our old lives, to have good jobs and pay us some money,” said Ms. Sreymao. “I don’t want a lot, just what’s fair, and I want my land certificate back.”

Besides more compensation and better loan terms, the ADB’s review panel also recommended ramping up efforts to help the families find better jobs. Ms. Sreymao hopes it will amount to more than the chicken-raising scheme that failed Mr. Phirun.

“Where am I going to raise chickens?” she said with a laugh. “I don’t have enough land. And they give you the chickens, but you have to borrow the money. I’m afraid the chickens will die, then I will be in more debt for nothing.”

The review panel also recommended improving facilities at the resettlement sites, singling out the “appalling state” of the health center at Trapaing Anhchanh.

On a visit to the health center Tuesday, the squat, whitewashed building was locked and shuttered.

“It’s an empty building, there’s no medicine and no doctors,” said Khuon Prum Sarith, who moved here in 2011 with his wife, sister and two children. As for the local school, he said it was overcrowded, with 40 to 50 students to a class.

Like his neighbors, Mr. Prum Sarith has little faith in the ADB.

“Before, I believed the ADB could find us a good place to stay, but then they brought us here and dumped us,” he said. “They said that if they could not make our lives better they would at least make it the same, but it’s much worse.”

Like the others, he wants just enough money from the ADB to make up for what he spent building a new home. He also wants the ADB to show the families its action plan without delay.

Equitable Cambodia, one of the NGOs that filed the complaint that triggered the ADB’s compliance review of the railway project, will file a formal request with the ADB to see the plan today.

David Pred of Inclusive Development International, which co-filed the complaint, said ADB country director Eric Sidgwick told him that the families won’t be consulted on the plan until after it reaches the ADB board.

“All we can infer from this latest act in a long saga of ADB non-compliance is that they intend to submit a half-baked plan that would be highly contested by the people whose destinies are actually affected by it,” Mr. Pred said.

Mr. Sidgwick said Tuesday that the ADB and the Cambodian government have agreed on most of the key elements of the plan. He said the families would be consulted on the plan, but declined to say when.

Phun Nimul said she has not seen anyone from the ADB visit Trapaing Anhchanh since she moved here in 2011.

Her husband clears about $100 a month driving a truck ferrying garment workers to and from work. She had to quit a job at a garment factory because of poor health, and now sells mobile phones out of their home and rents out party speakers. The family still owes more than half the $8,000 they borrowed to finance their forced move from their old home along the train tracks in central Phnom Penh.

“There, we had less land, but we were not in debt and we were happy,” Ms. Nimul said. “Here we have more land but we are in debt and we are not happy.”

“They [the ADB] said we would have a proper school, a proper hospital, but look at it now. It seems they just brought us here and abandoned us.”

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