Yuen Mach sat on the floor of her wooden home, her hands nervously twisting a stalk of lemongrass into fibrous strands.
Ever since authorities told her that this plot of land overlooking Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake no longer belonged to her, but to a local company that plans to flip the site into a massive real estate development, her days have been filled with worry.
“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 one of 4,000 families that will likely be relocated as part of the sprawling 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 – land tenure, poverty and the cavernous gap between rich and poor.
But with international donors having pledged a record $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 make 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. “People are crying and they just stay quiet.”
The majority of the population in Cambodia lacks legal land titles, a result of the tumultuous Khmer Rouge regime that emptied Phnom Penh and stripped away private ownership. When the regime fell, 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 was supposed to have helped people like Yuen. The US$28.8-million, Land Management and Administration Project, or LMAP, was designed to create a government-run land management programme 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 programme, 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 them.
The issue of land rights is just one of many on which critics are urging donors to take a tougher stand. The international watchdog organisation, Global Witness, this week slammed international donors 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 statement.
“… Donors simply cannot continue to turn a blind eye.”
The government, however, rejected the criticisms, calling 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 nation.”
In the end, the government announced that the donors had cumulatively pledged roughly $1.1 billion toward the national budget.
Rafael Dochao Moreno, the chargé d’affaires for the Delegation of the European Union to Cambodia, said he believes the country is making strides.
“It would be impossible for NGOs and development partners to agree 100 per cent,” 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.
“A lot of people say it’s not going fast enough. But maybe people in the government are saying it’s going too fast.”
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 Cambodian Centre 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 accountable.
“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.”
This story was published by Inter Press Service.