Cambodia's aid donors slammed for silence
By Irwin Loy
PHNOM PENH - P Yuen Mach sat on the floor of her wooden home, her hands
nervously twisting a stalk of lemongrass into fibrous strands. Her days have
been filled with worry ever since authorities told her that the plot of land
that her family occupies and which overlooks Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake no
longer belonged to her, but to a local company that plans to flip the site into
a real estate development.
"The government took the land from the poor and gave it to the
rich people," she said. "We are the poor people. Now they say we're living on
state property illegally."
Yuen and her relatives are among an estimated 4,000 families that will likely
be relocated as part of the 133-hectare development - the largest real estate
project in Cambodia's rapidly changing capital.
With numerous other land disputes simmering across the country, housing-rights
advocates here say Boeung Kak lake is just one potent symbol of the worsening
problems affecting the landless poor. But with international donors having
pledged a record US$1.1 billion this year in aid to the government, some
advocates say that those who hold the most influence have failed to use it to
urge the government to pursue faster reforms.
"There are donors who give money and then keep quiet. We are sorry for that,"
said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the coalition NGO Forum on Cambodia,
which is composed of local and international non-governmental organizations
working in the South-east Asian country. "People are crying and they just stay
The majority of the population in Cambodia lacks legal land titles, a result of
the tumultuous Khmer Rouge regime that emptied Phnom Penh of its inhabitants
and stripped away private ownership. When the regime fell in 1979, refugees
flooded back to the cities from the countryside, many settling in abandoned
buildings and squatting on vacant land.
"When we moved here, everybody just emerged from death, from the Khmer Rouge,"
Yuen said. "We just grabbed it and lived on the land. If the government had
told us that living here was illegal, I would never have moved here."
An ambitious donor-funded land titling project begun in 2002 was supposed to
have helped people like Yuen. The $28.8 million Land Management and
Administration Project, or LMAP, was designed to create a government-run land
management program and distribute official land titles. Nearly one million land
titles were issued as part of LMAP across the country.
But when the Boeung Kak lake residents demanded titles as part of the program,
authorities rejected the requests, claiming the residents were living illegally
on state property. The residents soon learned the land had been leased to a
private developer, whose plans for new office towers and villas did not include
After the project's proponents raised concerns about evictions with the
government, authorities responded by abruptly canceling the program in
The issue of land rights is just one of many on which critics are urging donors
to take a tougher stand. The international watchdog organization, Global
Witness, slammed international donors last week for continuing to hand over
huge sums of aid money, "despite evidence of widespread corruption and
mismanagement of public funds."
"The Cambodian government has been promising to reform for years, but nothing
has changed," Gavin Hayman, the group's campaigns director, said in a
The government, however, called the accusations part of a "hugely damaging
smear campaign" to discredit authorities. "The request from NGOs to put
pressure on the government and donors is a bad approach. They insult the
government and they insult the donors," said government spokesman Phay Siphan.
"We are all partners here. We respect each other and we respect the
partnership. And the country donors respect this nation's right to be a
In the end, the government said the donors had cumulatively pledged roughly
$1.1 billion toward the national budget.
Rafael Dochao Moreno, the charge d'affaires for the Delegation of the European
Union to Cambodia, said he believes the country is making strides toward
"It would be impossible for NGOs and development partners to agree 100%," he
said. "At the end of the day, nothing is black or white. I think there is a
consensus that this country is moving in the right direction."
Still, now that the money has been pledged, some critics believe donors should
be acting more aggressively to ensure the funds are well spent.
"The donors should make it clear that if the government is not willing to use
the aid effectively, they can find alternative ways to do so," said Ou Virak,
president of the non-governmental Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "The
problem is that message has never been clear."
Though donors insist they are urging Cambodian authorities to increase
transparency, Ou said their efforts have done little to ensure Cambodians
themselves can hold their government to account. Despite the promises, it
remains unclear just where all the aid money will go, he said.
"It's easy to call on the donors to bring about change," he said. "But the
fundamental challenge here is how the donors can put conditions in place that
will allow the Cambodian population to be able to hold its own government
"When you ask, has the money been used effectively? I just don't know. There's
no transparency in this money and what kinds of projects they help to support."