Nisha Agrawal, manager of the World Bank in Cambodia, has made her first visit to
the border town of Poipet and returned shocked by the exploitation and abuse of poor
people by border police, discrimination against Cambodians, land-grabbing by wealthy
speculators, and a huge investment in casinos for Thai gambling tourists.
Quoted in the Bank's July newsletter, she said: "Poipet has a population of
77,000, and 75 percent of these people sell their labor in Thailand. They have to
buy border tickets and pay a substantial proportion of their meager earnings at various
border checkpoints. After these costs they are left with little of their daily earnings.
"Cambodian goods and produce sellers are not permitted to use more than handcarts
to transport their merchandise into Thailand, while long lines of laden trucks bring
goods from Thailand into Cambodia. We were unable to find out why this obvious discrimination
There were six multi-story casinos built on Cambodian soil for the benefit of Thai
gamblers who come across the border in their thousands every day. Gambling is banned
in Thailand and Cambodian nationals are not permitted to gamble in Cambodia's casinos.
"Although the casinos dominate the town, the local commune council members told
us they have never been consulted about planning permission or construction permits,
and they don't know who owns these businesses," Agrawal said. "The casinos
employ more than 5000 workers."
The newsletter described a five-day tour by six WB staff, during which they met local
government and NGOs in all the principal towns. The article said there was not much
economic activity in Poipet other than the cross-border trade and the casinos.
Much of the agricultural land was lying unutilized, supposedly bought up by speculators.
The casinos came with a host of social problems. Whether this was the appropriate
model of development of the western border of Cambodia was open to question.
It took three hours to drive the 80 km unsealed road from Battambang to Pailin. All
along the way huge areas of land had been stripped of forest. Locals said this land
was held by rich and powerful people who, having logged and cleared it, were keeping
it for farming or property speculation. New migrants pouring into the northwest had
also been clearing forest for subsistence farming.
In Pailin, Commune Council and NGO representatives described difficulties such as
lack of foreign and local investors, lack of low interest micro-credit providers
and lack of markets for products. They had to accept whatever prices middlemen dictated.
Everyone they met was relaxed, candid and happy to talk to the World Bank. One meeting
was told: "We very rarely have big donors come to talk to us and learn from
us. We would like to suggest you come more often."
Nisha Agrawal said that although she was shocked by the obvious difficulties and
privation of the people she met, "this trip was very useful to test what we
are planning in our forthcoming country assistance strategy [CAS]. It confirmed that
the CAS is on the right track, with its focus on governance and a few critical areas
where we can help build long-term institutions in Cambodia: public financial management,
land reform, private sector development, strengthening local governance. There were
the issues that we came across everywhere we went.
"For me the highlight was our meeting with the young students; they are bright
and knowledgeable and understand the challenges of Cambodia. It is in them that the
hope for the future of Cambodia lies."