Thu, Apr 07, 2011 - Page 9 News List

China pumps up the Cambodian economy, but at what cost?

Forced evictions to make way for Chinese development projects are leaving Cambodians homeless and fueling popular anger, with some warning of a backlash

By Prak Chan Thul  /  Reuters, PHNOM PENH

“China’s investments have few strings attached,” Cambodian political analyst Chea Vannath said. “China’s push for more power and influence works very well with Cambodia, because it needs a cash injection into its economy and infrastructure.”

Most Cambodians who have been forcibly evicted are unable to prove ownership of land and property because legal documents were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal 1970s “Year Zero” revolution that killed about 1.7 million people.

Weatherbee said the evictions could one day lead to a groundswell of public discontent over what he calls “crony capitalism” between Cambodian elites and Chinese firms.

“For the people, the short term economic gains seem offset by the disruptions of human displacement, environmental disaster and political oppression,” he said.

Growth and development seems to be Cambodia’s priority. Trade with China climbed 42.1 percent last year to US$1.12 billion. During Hun Sen’s visit last year to Beijing, China promised a US$300 million loan to build two national roads and an irrigation project. Other deals worth about US$293 million, mostly infrastructure-related, were also agreed.

Chinese has so far invested just more than US$1 billion in Cambodia — a figure dwarfed by huge investment pledges over the next five years. Total Chinese FDI in other Southeast Asian economies, up to the end of 2009, included US$799 million in Indonesia, US$448 million in Thailand and US$728 million in Vietnam, official Chinese figures showed.

Analysts say the arrangement with Cambodia has been designed to go beyond business. China will be assured of Cambodia’s political support, while Beijing’s veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council could offer Cambodia some international protection, as it has the military generals that run Myanmar, who are also key allies of China.

Cambodia showed its unwavering support for China in December 2009 by defying international pressure and deporting 20 Muslim Uighurs who sought asylum after fleeing ethnic violence in China. Two days later, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) visited Phnom Penh and signed 14 trade deals worth US$850 million.

Following a recent visit to Beijing, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong made his country’s stance clear.

“It’s a good thing that China, as the rising superpower, contributes to solve the world’s problems,” he said.

“Should we rather accept Chinese tourists who spend money in our country, or Chinese refugees?” he said.

Similar patterns of Chinese investment are being seen in Myanmar and Communist Laos as Beijing splashes its cash and boosts its presence in Southeast Asia.

China is planning to pour money into rail and road projects to increase trade, investment and tourism in the region, underscoring strengthening ties with the 10-member ASEAN, with which it has agreed a free-trade pact covering an area with a combined population of 1.9 billion people and GDP of nearly US$6 trillion.

For people like Ly Mom, China’s interest in Cambodia has left a sour taste and protests are increasingly common.

Strict laws were passed in 2009 to restrict demonstrations, which rights groups and experts saw as a pre-emptive strike by Hun Sen’s government, aware it could have problems on its hands.

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