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Monday, May 16, 2011

Cambodian residents report threats over railway development

Impoverished Cambodians say they are being forcibly moved out of their houses to make way for the country's redeveloped railway system.

The ABC's Southeast Asia correspondent, Zoe Daniel, says more than 160 families from a community in the capital, Phnom Penh, have been offered a few hundred dollars' compensation for their houses by local authorities.

The residents say the compensation they've been offered isn't enough. Some say they will lose buildings they live and work in, while others are angry that they've been told to move about 20km out of the city.

Residents who don't want to leave say they've been threatened by local officials.

One resident says she was asked to accept the deal by giving a thumb print.

"If I don't, they will bulldoze my house, they will hire [a] drug user to burn my house," she said.

The railway project being is built with funding from the Australian aid agency AusAID and the Asian Development Bank, and that marked buildings within 3.5 metres of the line are scheduled to be partially or fully demolished.

ADB spokesman Peter Bloch has rejected reports of intimidation and threats.

"Resettlement is always a horribly difficult thing to do in this part of the world," he said.

"We have what's known as a safeguards policy, which sets certain minimum standards that must be upheld when resettling people."

But residents, together with NGOs, are preparing a complaint to the ADB's highest level, while Bridges Across Borders Cambodia (BABC), a prominent NGO, is also advocating on residents' behalf.

The organisation's founder, David Pred, says the project bears the characteristics of corporate welfare.

"You have Australian tax dollars and Cambodian debt to the Asian Development Bank bankrolling a project, whose primary beneficiaries thus far have been major Australian and Cambodian corporations," he said.

Failed resettlement
Last year, our correspondent says more than 50 families were relocated to Battambang, a town north-west of Phnom Penh, and that many reported having no power or clean water when they arrived.

Sok Cheun says two of his children drowned when they went to get water from a deep pond nearby.

"If we had enough food, enough water, my children would not have died," he said.

Following the deaths, AusAID and the Asian Development Bank say they increased their monitoring of the government resettlement program.

Power has also reportedly been connected to houses but at the resident's cost, and many of those resettled are understood to have left.

The Asian Development Bank's criteria for resettlement outlines the need for people to be in the same or better circumstances after they are moved.

Mr Pred says BABC believes the large number of families that have left Battambang is an indication that the resettlement process has failed.

"Obviously, if people are not happy to stay here, where they've been moved, then that shows that they weren't resettled adequately," he said.

AusAID declined to comment but has said that relocating people affected by the new rail line is the responsibility of the Cambodian Government.

The new railway is expected to be operational by the end of next year, and is to be run by an Australian firm, Toll Holdings.

Our correspondent says Toll Holdings, which has a 30-year concession to operate Cambodia's train system, has indicated that it is not responsible for either fixing the tracks or moving the people.
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Tiny nation can take rightful place in ASEAN

OUR desire to join ASEAN is a longstanding one and in the past 10 years, we have shown unequivocal determination to join the organisation. Geographically, we are very much part of Southeast Asia. Indonesia has shown statesmanship, vision and a real sense of history by being among those most strongly advocating Timor-Leste's membership.

Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, The Philippines, Cambodia and Burma have expressed public support. When I visited Cambodia a few weeks ago, I was told by Prime Minister Hun Sen that in preparation for Cambodia's chairmanship of ASEAN next year, they are already making additional arrangements to accommodate Timor-Leste as the 11th member. But Singapore, while agreeing with Timor-Leste's ASEAN membership, objects to early membership, arguing the country is not yet ready to deal with the challenges and complexities of ASEAN membership.

According to the just-released UN Development Program Human Development Report, Timor-Leste's Human Development Index value is 0.502, placing it in the medium human development category, ahead of ASEAN members such as Cambodia, Laos and Burma and just behind Vietnam in the overall measure of human development.

School enrolment jumped from a modest 63 per cent in 2006 to 82.7 per cent in 2009. Illiteracy will be eliminated by 2015. Child and infant mortality, as well as post-birth mother mortality, have been halved. Life expectancy at birth increased by more than two years and now averages 62.1 years. Incidences of malaria and dengue fever have decreased significantly in the past four years and poverty has also lessened.

Gross national product per capita increased 228 per cent during the same period to more than $US5000.

Timor-Leste has no foreign debt, and according to The Economist 2010 Pocketbook, it has the highest surplus in the world - over 280 per cent as a percentage of gross domestic product. Our economy has continued to show robust growth for four consecutive years, and Timor-Leste is among the nine fastest-growing economies of the world.

In the past few years, the political situation has been remarkably free of tension. On the security front, Timor-Leste does not have ethnic or religious conflicts, organised crime or armed insurgency. Political and social tensions and, in some instances, sporadic violence have flared up but we have been able to quickly overcome these spasms, which are typical in nation-building. We have rebounded from these periods of crisis even stronger.

The London-based Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative rates Timor-Leste the best performer in Asia and third in the world in terms of accountability and transparency in the management of our petroleum resources.

In the pursuit of good governance and transparency, and to get rid of the worldwide phenomenon of corruption, parliament has passed the Anti-Corruption Law and we have created an anti-corruption commission. With active support from Indonesia, Australia and the US, we are strengthening our national police, enabling them to better prevent, intercept and fight organised crime. from sex slavery to people-smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering.

We are proud of what we have achieved since 2002. We have a dynamic multi-party democracy with nine parties in the national parliament. Almost 30 per cent of the elected MPs are women, and several women hold key ministerial portfolios.

Timor-Leste stands out with its very liberal and humanist constitution that prohibits the death penalty. We have ratified all major International Human Rights treaties and have complied with our reporting obligations. Timor-Leste, according to Reporters Without Borders, has one of the freest media in the region.

Since our independence, we have made every effort to harmonise our foreign and security policies with those of our ASEAN neighbours. We have been sensitive to our neighbours' views on regional and global issues, always making every effort not to stray from the ASEAN view whenever there is a consensus on a specific country situation or thematic issue. We have friendly and pro-active relations with emerging powers such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil while maintaining special relations with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the US.

In the past decade, we have not had a single diplomatic or security incident involving any neighbour. Relations with Indonesia are exemplary.

In view of Timor-Leste's financial circumstance and its proven ability to engage regionally and internationally, Timor-Leste is ready to join ASEAN this year or next. We concede we have many weaknesses and shortcomings, but ASEAN could admit Timor-Leste now and give us a five- to 10-year transition period, during which we would expand efforts to catch up to the more advanced ASEAN members. This would make sense, in line with past ASEAN practice in relation to other members and with the EU practice of admitting new members and supporting them until they are able to fully meet their obligations.

ASEAN fellow members should not have to worry about any financial costs as Timor-Leste will not beg for economic or financial support.

Jose Ramos-Horta is the President of Timor-Leste. A longer version of this article was published on the East Asia Forum, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/.
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