Rights groups have asked the World Bank to schedule a “special meeting” with evictees before deciding whether to lift a freeze on new loans to Cambodia, and to hold it in Thailand so that participants can speak their minds without fear of reprisal from the Cambodian government.
In mid-2011, the World Bank announced that it had suspended all new lending to the country in protest over mass evictions in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood, where the government had refused to hand out land titles under a now-defunct project the bank was funding. Some 3,000 families—most of the neighborhood—had been evicted by then and the bank said it would start lending again only after the government and Boeng Kak residents reached an unspecified “agreement.”
Though the government has yet to provide what many of the evictees consider fair compensation, the bank announced in August that it was contemplating a new $25-million project that would effectively end the funding freeze if approved. The bank said it would first hold 11 face-to-face meetings with various groups around the country in late 2014 or early 2015, but has yet to schedule a single one.
In a letter sent Tuesday to World Bank Regional Director for Southeast Asia Ulrich Zachau, U.S. lawyer Morton Sklar, who is working with several Cambodian NGOs on behalf of the evictees, argues that the bank’s plans for the meetings miss the mark.
The seven “key stakeholder groups” the bank plans to meet with include representatives from the government, private companies, NGOs and “youth.” Not one of the groups includes the evictees themselves.
The bank’s plan, Mr. Sklar writes, “appears to be so general in nature, and have such wide scope, that it will not be able to provide adequate focus on the land eviction issue [which] was the reason why the ban on loans was imposed in the first place.”
To give the evictees the voice he says they deserve, Mr. Sklar asks the bank to schedule a meeting just for them, either in late March or mid-April. And given the government’s ongoing persecution of its critics—including the one-year prison sentences handed down to 11 anti-eviction activists last year for protest-related charges—he asks that the meeting take place in Thailand.
“Several representatives of the leaders of the land eviction protests have expressed concerns that if they openly express their views within Cambodia as objecting to the issuance of World Bank loans to the Cambodian government, they will be subject to reprisals similar to those that were most recently applied to the 11 protest leaders,” he says.
Mr. Zachau’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Bou Saroeun, spokesman for the World Bank’s Cambodia office, declined to comment on the letter and referred to a statement the bank issued on November 17 that addresses none of the issues raised in the letter.