Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny (C) leads a protest by several communities affected by land grabbing yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
While protesters demonstrated outside, urging land and human-rights reform, members of the donor community met with the government yesterday at the Council for the Development of Cambodia in Phnom Penh to sign off on a series of development targets that bore only a faint resemblance to those recommended by civil society.
The high-level donor meeting typically convenes every six months, but had been indefinitely postponed since April, 2011.
At the meeting, donors and the government agree to targets that help inform aid packages.
Local and international NGOs have been urging foreign nations to withhold aid unless strict human-rights reforms are made by the government, but donors neither pledged nor suspended funds yesterday.
Instead, reading from a series of prepared speeches, most offered only the most cautious of critiques, such as a suggestion by Japan that civil society opinion be sought more often and the EU’s calls for increased budget transparency.
“There’s normally a question-and-answer session, but at this particular time, there was hardly any room for comment,” pointed out Lun Borithy, executive director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, which co-ordinated a long list of recommendations along with a 170-page series of NGO position papers disseminated at yesterday’s meeting.
“I think we’ll have to rely on the coverage in the press . . . about our key asks and recommendations. To rely too much on direct input in the meeting is having over-expectations.”
Pushing for land reforms
Reform recommendations publicised by the joint group of NGOs on Tuesday appeared to have had little impact on the targets signed off on.
The groups, for instance, called for concrete changes to land policies, asking for public access to information regarding state land and a complete overhaul of resettlement procedures.
The endorsed targets, in turn, touched upon neither, mostly focusing on due dates for draft policy papers and laws.
While participants endorsed 20 “joint monitoring indicators” ranging from health to aid effectiveness to education, land and the attendant rights issues have been chief on many observers’ minds.
Though most of the meeting was pro-forma, there were hints that the donor community has been pushing harder for land reforms than those endorsed targets might indicate.
A moot point
German Ambassador Wolfgang Moser highlighted “the adverse social and environmental effects associated with granting of various concessions" in his speech, flagging involuntary resettlements “of concern to development partners”.
“We welcome the temporary moratorium on granting new ELCs, as this can effectively block new conflicts,” he added, before raising a series of questions to the government on the status and extent of the moratorium – which was declared in May but has stoked concern among rights groups after the government revealed it would not extend to ELCs already in the pipeline.
But while donors praised the government’s readiness to allow such questions, it proved a moot point, as no representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture – the only body governing ELCs – were present. Calls to officials at the ministry went unanswered.
Tom Barthel Hansen, head of representation at the Danish Embassy, which has been heavily involved in the forestry sector, told the Post that the issue of ELCs remained paramount.
“There’s no doubt about it, of course ELCs have been a point of agenda. It’s an area where we have raised our concern … The government has raised the issue and are fully aware that they need to do something on this issue,” he said. “It’s no secret that the donors are watching what’s going on with ELCs.”
Begging for intervention
While the government seemed less than keen to touch on the issue of ELCs, Minister of Land Management Im Chhun Lim presented the most comprehensive explanation yet of the premier’s massive land titling initiative currently under way.
While he highlighted the strides that had been made since the June 25 order – noting that 170,000 households had been recorded and 800 titles handed out – villagers from Boeung Kak and Borei Keila stood outside the CDCC, begging for intervention in their own land disputes.
“We want the development partners and private sectors to understand our concerns over the land dispute that appeared from their development projects, and we need them to respond and resolve this issue,” said protester Tep Vanny.
Dressed as birds, burning incense and praying, the villagers’ elaborately staged demonstration, however, likely fell on deaf ears.
Before they could encounter anyone from the government or donor community, the group was quickly shunted by police to the west side of the CDCC – far from any entrances or windows.