In 2009, a railway project official arrived at 45-year-old Ry Preng’s home in Por Sen Chey district and spray-painted “1.042” in red on the side of his house. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but was told that at some point he would need to pack up and leave to make way for a freight facility alongside the national railroad.
“They just came to study, they did not tell us anything,” he said, referring to the 230 families living or owning land in Samrong Estate, a 100-hectare stretch of mostly agricultural plots on the capital’s outskirts.
Now, close to five years on, little has changed.
Samrong Estate’s limbo status emerged last week in a large-scale report by the ADB’s internal watchdog, the Compliance Review Panel, which detailed the mass failings of the bank to ensure the just relocation of families resettled as part of the $143 million railway development.
Samrong Estate, however, stands out because the families have not moved and don’t appear to be going anywhere. The other difference is the extent to which the ADB went to find out whether the land was state-owned, an effort that included hiring two law firms, one of which had government ties.
“We have decided to deal with some aspects of Samrong Estate separately because it presents a set of facts and issues that stand apart from the main project,” the report released last week says. In 2009, the government offered Samrong Estate to Toll Royal Railway, a joint venture between Australian company Toll Holdings and Cambodia’s Royal Group, as a condition of the concession to operate the revived transport network.
From the outset, according to the ADB watchdog’s report, the government claimed that Samrong was state land, something rebutted by rights groups and occupants, who said properties were privately owned or at least open to registration under Cambodian law. The complexities around the ownership led the ADB to request a legal opinion from the government, but none was forthcoming. Instead, in 2010 the ADB, according to the watchdog’s report, commissioned regional legal firm DFDL to complete an investigation.
After 18 months, in 2012, DFDL found in support of the government’s position that the land was state owned. By this time, however, rights groups had gathered more documentation to support their claim of household ownership.
Documents were passed back to DFDL who then issued a report with “a significant number of caveats”, according to the ADB watchdog, one of which was that its findings should not be shared outside of the ADB.
DFDL, unable to make public its conclusion, recommended to the ADB a Cambodian legal firm called Honest and Balanced Services (HBS). The bank then published the HBS opinion affirming that Samrong was owned by the government on its website in August of 2012.
Rights groups have questioned whether HBS is independent enough to issue such a ruling.
According to the HBS website, the firm’s chairman is Hong Panharith, who, among other positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is also listed as a personal assistant to Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.
The online bio of another partner and managing director Ly Tayseng includes a research role with the General Secretariat of the Supreme National Economic Council (SNEC) from 2005 to 2012. Tayseng, reached yesterday, said he could not discuss the matter, citing confidentiality privileges.
The watchdog’s report critiqued the ADB for hiring firms without first assessing their background as independent and said it wasn’t the ADB’s job to get to the bottom of a land dispute.
Eric Sidgwick, ADB country director for Cambodia, said via email yesterday that the bank deemed procuring independent legal advice “the most appropriate method pending a final resolution of the matter under local law”.
But like the rest of the vast resettlement project, for which the ADB may end up loaning the government millions to make right, the fate of Samrong is far from clear.
The ADB said on Friday that the government has requested the freight facility planned for Samrong be removed from the project’s scope without elaborating on what that means for residents. An official at the Ministry of Transport could not be reached for comment.
At Samrong, the same train tracks run between houses and rice paddies, just as they did years ago. Preng, the homeowner, is none the wiser. The same paint is above his doorway. He still doesn’t know what’s going to happen at number 1.042.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SUM MANET