Land rights acrimony in AusAID Asian project

Rebecca Puddey, The Australian, Sep. 6 2011

A TAXPAYER-FUNDED development project is mired in controversy after the Cambodian government launched a crackdown against land rights organisations critical of the compulsory resettlement of families.

The Cambodian government has cautioned a small group of foreign organisations against stirring up unrest among those being forced off their land and has banned land rights organisation Sahmakum Teang Tnaut from operating for five months.

AusAID first assistant director general Richard Moore told The Australian the agency was concerned and had co-written a strongly-worded letter with the Asian Development Bank to the Cambodian government on August 17.

AusAID has contributed $US21.5 million ($20.3m) towards the $US141m project to renovate Cambodia’s decrepit rail system, with the Asian Development Bank providing $US84m in concessional loans.

The Cambodian government is responsible for resettling and compensating people who are forced off their land.

But STT has accused the Cambodian government of ripping people off by downgrading the value of land being compulsorily acquired through the project.

Mr Moore conceded there were problems with the project and that the Department of Foreign Affairs was working through more than 300 complaints.

“We knew that managing the resettlement issues was going to be complex,” he said.

STT program co-ordinator Ee Sarom said his organisation did not want to stop the development, but wanted problems highlighted. Project partners should “address anomalies and ensure the affected people are aware of their rights”.

“This type of work is important in ensuring development projects are equitable, sustainable, and beneficial to all Cambodians.”

AusAID and the development bank came under fire from STT and other land rights groups in May after two young children drowned at a resettlement site for residents displaced by the project.

The Cambodian government cautioned staff from the NGO Forum, an umbrella organisation, over letters it sent to AusAID and ADB officials alerting them about the situation at resettlement sites.

It also summoned staff from Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, another land rights group, to warn them about making “false” claims.