World Bank Promises Meetings Before Ending Funding Freeze

The World Bank on Monday said it would hold meetings around the country before deciding whether to start lending to Cambodia again, following mounting speculation that the bank will soon lift a three-year-old lending freeze.

The World Bank announced a freeze on all new lending to Cambodia in mid-2011 in protest over mass evictions in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood, where the government had refused to hand out land titles under a bank-funded project. It has continued doling out money for pre-existing projects and out of the trust funds it holds for other development partners, but not from its own International Development Association (IDA).

When it announced the freeze —by which time some 3,000 families, most of the neighborhood, had already been forced out— the bank said it would not start lending again until the government and Boeng Kak residents reached an undefined “agreement.” But word from the bank in August that it was contemplating a new $25 million project in Cambodia renewed concerns among rights groups that the freeze would thaw prematurely. Documents posted to the bank’s website say board approval for the new project is expected by December 11.

In an apparent attempt to allay those fears, the World Bank said in a statement Monday that new lending would not resume until it finished a series of meetings around the country.

“These consultations will inform the planned future of the World Bank Group Country Engagement Note (CEN), which will guide the envisaged re-engagement,” it says. “New International Development Association (IDA) financing commitments would be made after the consultations and through and under the CEN.”

The statement does not say how long the process will take, however, and a bank spokesman declined to elaborate on its plans or respond to public concerns.

The World Bank’s website says the consultations will happen “in late 2014 or early 2015, with dates to be determined.” It adds that the bank will hold a total of 11 face-to-face meetings over a two-week period in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Preah Sihanouk and Kompong Cham provinces.

Morton Sklar, an American lawyer who heads the World Organization for Human Rights USA, and who filed one of the two complaints against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, said he was worried that the bank’s language seemed to presuppose that its lifting of the lending freeze was all but certain.

“Given the extensive and systemic nature of the land evictions that have been taking place, and the fact that the ICC is considering these issues as potential crimes against humanity in two pending complaints now before the court, the World Bank needs to be more careful in not suggesting in their language that the lifting of their ban on loans is a predetermined conclusion of the consultation process,” Mr. Sklar said in an email.

“Without more effective and realistic assurances from the Hun Sen government that the existing land eviction policies will be changed, and that victims of past evictions will be properly compensated and relocated, the ban on new loans must remain in place,” he said.

The 3,000 families evicted from Boeng Kak received either free housing on the city’s outskirts but far from their old jobs, or an $8,500 cash payout, both considered paltry compensation for their central Phnom Penh homes by both housing rights groups and the families who took the offers under duress.

Last week, several Boeng Kak women were arrested in front of City Hall after blocking part of Monivong Boulevard to protest the neighborhood’s inadequate drainage system, which leaves area homes filled with filthy standing water for several days after heavy rains. Residents say the flooding only started after Shukaku Inc., the private firm the government leased most of the neighborhood to, started filling in the local lake in 2008.

The arrested women were swiftly convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of obstructing traffic and sentenced to a year in jail.

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