Foreigners can help Cambodia by cleaning up their investments

Homeless land grab victims seek redress from the ANZ.

Homeless land grab victims seek redress from the ANZ. Photo: Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily

One of the biggest social problems in Cambodia today is the relentless issue of land concessions to foreign (and some local,) owned companies who present the Government with grand plans of turning subsistence farm holdings into consolidated wealth-producing fields of rubber, palm-oil production or similar. It will create jobs, they promise. It will be sustainable. There will be minimal social cost. In fact local villagers will be better off!

Yeah right. A recent study by international watchdog organisation Rights & Resources Initiative found that practically all concessions end up in social failure, with villagers displaced, often with no compensation. Nearly three-quarters of a million Cambodians have been affected in this manner.

For more on the R&RI report, see this piece in the Phnom Penh Post, dated December 8th, 2014.The report says the Cambodia experience matches the global pattern of land grabbing by corporates.

The majority of the disputes evolved at the initial stages when companies set project proposals into action without input from locals.

“Second, risks can be reduced by maintaining strong environmental standards,” the report says, as environmental regulations were the most common source of noncompliance related fines and lawsuits.

Additionally, without strong relations with the community, even well-intentioned relocations or compensation fail.

However, evictees from the Borei Keila community – who had been promised relocation housing in 2003, but found themselves abandoned – said the problem is lack of accountability.

“If the company and the government officials especially had respected and implemented the contracted agreement, our people would have gotten more benefits from this project,” said Chhay Kim Horn, a representative. “It is the authorities and the company together that left us disappointed.

In 2011 the World Bank imposed a freeze on all new lending to Cambodia, reported Cambodia Daily,  in protest at the government’s forced eviction of some 3,000 families from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood. Now three years later those residents are still urging the World Bank to keep the freeze in place because they still seek adequate compensation.

Increasingly, investor activists are joining the dots between where their investment dollars are going, and what these dollars are being used for. In Australia the ANZ Bank came under fire this year, back in April, when they were publicly shamed for pouring investor dollars into locally owned Phnom Penh Sugar – without ensuring that displaced villagers would be compensated (they accepted a paper promise but did not undertake further due-diligence) nor that adequate health and safety standards would be implemented. The Oxfam report which uncovered these failed promises was scathing of the ANZ for its hands-off approach on ethical issues – despite glowing mission statements advertised by the bank.

Australia’s ABC report is well worth viewing. Click here.

A year earlier, following intense scrutiny by Oxfam and watchdog Global Witness, Deutsche Bank of Germany divested of itself holdings in Vietnamese owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group a huge corporate in the rubber industry.

Here’s a quote from the German broadcaster DW’s report 03.12.2013:

In the report titled “Rubber Barons,” HAGL was accused of numerous rights abuses in relation to tens of thousands of hectares of land the Cambodian and Laotian governments have granted it.

Global Witness’ report assessed the environmental and social effects of HAGL’s rubber plantations in Cambodia and Laos. It stated that the company was flouting the law when it came to protecting the land rights of indigenous people, was illegally clearing forest, and held tracts of Cambodian land nearly five times greater than the 10,000 hectare legal limit.

“Families affected are impoverished, face food and water shortages, and get little or no compensation,” Global Witness said at the time. “Indigenous minority peoples’ spirit forests and burial grounds have been destroyed. When they resist, communities face violence, arrest and detention, often at the hands of armed security forces that are on the investors’ payroll.”

There are several failures here. On the frontline, the big corporates are acting as rapaciously as untethered giants did, I’m thinking of the United Fruit Company, a century earlier. They are in it for the quick dollar.

Second is the blind-eye being turned by authorities. The Hun Sen government wants growth at any price, and appears unwilling to enforce its own laws. There is a 10,000 ha land limit enshrined in law – but numerous corporates exceed this; even locally owned corporates. Then there are the issues of social justice to which the Government appears oblivious.  In fact, as dispossessed people protest their situation, the police have been called in to jail these protestors.

But third – and just as culpable – are the investors, the big banks or managed funds, and the mom and pop investors, who bankroll these operations.

Deutsche Bank never gave reasons for its divestment in HAGL, but it is pretty obvious they had been shamed by the difference between their ethical promise and their actual actions. First world investors need to connect these dots more often.

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Lack of transparency, lack of trust, lack of justice – in Cambodia’s justice system

CAMBODIAN ELECTION

Journalist Kevin Doyle based in Phnom Penh has written a blistering piece for the BBC which was published today.

The story revolves around the murder of a young woman, a mother of  are 10-year-old,  who was shot in cold blood by her jealous boyfriend  a policeman.  Witnesses saw him. But he has not been brought to justice.

Earlier this year, karaoke parlour singer, Sam Yin, 29, was shot dead by a police officer.

He escaped – but then resurfaced in August as a free man. He had reached a deal, it was reported, with the court, which closed the case after he paid $1,500 (£960) to Sam Yin’s relatives.

“I heard about the compensation, but I can’t confirm it,” Takeo province’s deputy police chief Suon Phon said in September.

Officers could only be dispatched to apprehend the suspected killer when the court issued an arrest warrant, the deputy police chief said, adding this week that he has yet to receive one.

“I don’t know what happened because everything has been done at the provincial court.”

In Cambodia, a small cash payment is often the most people can hope for when the rich and powerful are involved – and cases such as Sam Yin are far from unique.

The story then springboards onto the wider question of the justice system in Cambodia, and how it is far from transparent. As Doyle notes:

Anti-corruption monitor Transparency International reported in 2013 that Cambodia’s judiciary “was perceived to be the most corrupt institution out of 12 public institutions reviewed”.

Police officers fared no better. Bribery of officers was “widespread across the country,” Transparency reported, noting that 65% of respondents reported paying a police office a bribe in the previous 12 months.

In a 24 September statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi said the list of impunity cases was “long and growing”.

“Little has been done to bring perpetrators to justice,” he said.

Kevin Doyle’s article is well worth a read.  Click here: BBC report on corruption.

A joke about Cambodian prison that got too close for comfort.

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Today I enjoyed a Facebook exchange with one of the students we support in Cambodia. He’d posted a photo with his friends and I replied by saying that they looked like a group of gangsters. We riffed on the idea, with announcements that the police were coming and…as our joke continued, the manhunt ended with ME being arrested and put behind bars. I asked if he would visit me in my “new home” but he said – tellingly – that it was not safe to do so. Ha ha!

Not safe? The exchange got me thinking about the awful prisons in Cambodia where – for example – the Siem Reap jail is so overcrowded that there is not room for every inmate to sleep at the same time. This is despite a major upgrade in 2010. They have double their planned occupancy thanks I think to a rise in enforceable ‘crimes’ (no number plate on your motorbike? can’t pay the fine?), the war on drugs (drugs offences are up sharply,) as well as the high level of police corruption. In nine years I’ve twice encountered Cambodian friends who were locked up for non-crimes (a minor traffic accident) and they were told that only money could “sort out this mess.” In one case the money was several thousand dollars – 10 months salary of a middle-level bank worker. Question for readers: do you resist corruption and let a Cambodian acquaintance rot in prison?

Of particular sadness however is the question of youth incarceration. In Cambodia young people – vagrants – are “swept off the street” quite often and locked up without access to justice. As one social justice organisation THIS LIFE CAMBODIA says on their website:

Cambodia does not have a juvenile justice system. Children aged 14-18 are tried in the adult criminal justice system and are subsequently detained and imprisoned in adult prisons. Approximately 95 children are held in Siem Reap prison where numerous issues threaten their rights, despite Cambodian and international laws to the contrary.

Putting aside youth incarceration, there’s the problem facing families who have a family member locked-up in jail. We know that many are simply innocent and victims of corruption, and the others at the very least have little access to a fair, transparent and just system unless they have the wealth, the connections and the knowledge to get the best from the system: an unlikely prospect.

How do their families cope? THIS LIFE CAMBODIA points out that one cannot even visit a prison without being expected to pay bribes to underpaid prison guards at several points. The affordability of basic justice is out of reach for many.

There are also children of prisoners – infants who have no other carers. Here’s a carefully written watchdog report on what they face: and it makes grim reading. Click here.

The story is not a pretty one, and I’m not surprised my student friend didn’t want to come close to prison – even in jest.

Added detail February 2019. Early this year, some 6 years after writing the main article, I went to visit a friend in jail and I took the boy in this article, Moeuncheat, along for the experience, along with Australian supporter Romayne.  Both knew the inmate and both were pleasantly surprised by the relaxed atmosphere of Siem Reap prison, and by the joyful response of the person we were visiting.

See also: Free, free at last. A precious shared moment in Cambodia.

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