Nget Khun, a 76-year-old known to some in Cambodia’s capital as “Grandma Mommy,” hasn’t had a quiet retirement.
Authorities have tossed the former street vendor in prison for months at a time. Khun says police have beaten and shocked her with electric stun batons.
All because, she says, she dared to speak out against a wave of evictions targeting poor people living in an area of Phnom Penh that was supposed to be protected by a World Bank-financed land management program. An internal World Bank investigation found that bank officials failed to do enough to stand up for residents’ rights as Cambodian authorities pushed thousands of Khun’s neighbors from their homes to make way for luxury high-rises and high-end shops.
Khun is among dozens of grassroots activists and ordinary folks around the globe who say governments and companies backed by the World Bank Group have targeted them for threats, beatings, arrests, spying and other reprisals because they’ve criticized big development projects.
Human rights campaigners claim the World Bank Group has repeatedly failed to intervene to stop its borrowers from cracking down on critics of dams, roads and other projects backed by the bank, leaving vulnerable people like Khun to fend for themselves against companies and governments that often have little patience for dissent.
In a report released in June, Human Rights Watch said the bank’s weak response to reprisals by its borrowers makes a mockery of the institution’s commitment to give people affected by its projects a say in how development efforts are handled. In some cases, the report contends, the World Bank Group’s “prevailing response” has bordered on “complete apathy.”
As a multinational lender, the World Bank Group doesn’t have the authority to directly step in to protect people targeted for reprisals. But it still wields clout in the developing world. Human rights advocates say bank officials should be willing to cut off funding when governments or companies try to silence critics. In years past, even a phone call from the World Bank’s president could prompt governments to back off retaliatory measures.
The World Bank Group declined to provide detailed answers to questions for this story. It said in a statement published in June that it has “strong policies and mechanisms” to protect people who want to speak out about its work. “When complaints are brought to our attention,” a spokesperson said, “we work — within the scope of our mandate — with appropriate parties to try to address them.”
The World Bank Group operates in what it describes as “the most difficult and challenging environments,” lending money to support public works and social services in nations with serious economic and political problems. In many places where the bank operates, free speech rights are limited and critics risk violence or jail.
The freedom to have a say about World Bank-sponsored projects is important because its initiatives can have huge consequences for the people living in their path. Since 2004, projects backed by the bank have physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Huffington Post and other media partners found. In some cases, governments or companies bankrolled by the World Bank Group have burned or bulldozed homes and assaulted or killed villagers as they carried out mass evictions, according to interviews and official complaints.
A recent study by the International Accountability Project, a human rights group, found that people affected by projects sponsored by the World Bank are often afraid to speak out. The group said 78 percent of the 800 people it surveyed in Cambodia, Mongolia, Egypt and elsewhere said they “do not feel safe to express their true opinions or ask questions” about initiatives pushed by the World Bank and other development lenders.
In 2002, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni launched a World Bank-backed dam project by warning about troublemakers who were bent on undermining economic growth. “Those who delay industrial projects are enemies, and I don't want them,” he elaborated the next day, according to state-controlled media. “I am going to open war on them.”
In the years that followed, the government arrested environmentalists who had complained about the dam project and threatened to shut down humanitarian groups that had criticized a World Bank Group-funded agribusiness effort. Ugandan authorities accused Oxfam and other groups of “inciting violence” because they’d claimed the agriculture project had led to evictions of thousands of poor villagers.
Uganda officials did not respond to questions for this story.
In Nepal, security forces repressed peaceful protests against the construction of a high-voltage power line backed by the World Bank, “employing torture, detention, and violent attacks on unarmed women,” according to a 2013 complaint filed with the bank’s Inspection Panel.
In Cambodia, police arrested eight villagers in 2012 who faced eviction because of an expansion of Phnom Penh’s airport financed by the World Bank. The villagers had tried to send a message to U.S. President Barack Obama by covering their tin roofs with his picture and a spray-painted plea: “S.O.S.” They had hoped Obama would see their message when he flew into the country for a summit.
The World Bank Group declined to comment on these cases or other specific incidents. “The details of such engagements are sensitive and therefore we cannot disclose information about them,” a spokesperson said.
In its general statement, the bank said that when links between reprisals and the projects it funds can be established, “we have taken action as documented by past cases and we will continue to do so.”
The bank declined to identify specific examples.
Episodes from an earlier time in the bank’s history show that it can influence the actions of the countries and companies it finances.
In 2001, World Bank officials intervened after authorities in Chad arrested a member of parliament and others who criticized an oil pipeline being built with financing from the bank. Then-World Bank Group President James Wolfensohn telephoned Chad’s president to ask for the release of the legislator and other political prisoners. They were freed within hours.
In 2002, the bank blasted Cambodian officials for cracking down on villagers who protested a forest management effort supported by the bank. “You can’t talk about participation and consultation on one hand and beat people who express their opinions on the other,” a bank spokesman said at the time.
But the bank hasn’t taken those kinds of aggressive stances often in the past decade, according to human rights groups and on-the-ground activists.
Khun says bank officials never contacted her during her two stints — six months in all — in a Cambodian prison.
“Never. I did not see them,” Khun said in an interview with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists soon after she was released from her most recent stay behind bars. “They never came and checked on me when the police hit me. They never met with me or asked me anything when I was victimized.”
Khun, a wiry-thin grandmother with deep-set eyes and sun-browned cheeks, was first arrested in 2012 when she joined a demonstration to support neighbors who lived around Boeung Kak Lake, a large freshwater basin in Phnom Penh that construction crews were filling with sand to create space for new condos and shops. Locals had relied on the lake, which is now almost completely gone, to fish and cultivate water vegetables. Some also operated restaurants and hostels for tourists.
A $34 million project bankrolled by the World Bank was supposed to help Boeung Kak Lake residents and Cambodians secure clear-cut legal titles to homes and land. The bank says the program helped clarify ownership of more than 1 million parcels around the county. Around Boeung Kak Lake, it was a different story: the government transferred control of prime waterfront property to a private company headed by a well-connected Cambodian senator.
Authorities pushed some 3,000 families out of their homes in what Amnesty International called the country’s largest forced eviction since Cambodia’s 1970s “Killing Fields” era. Other families, including Khun’s, remained, but were forced to endure flooding and other disruptions as construction workers pumped sand into the lake.
“The Cambodian government doesn't pay attention to the poor,” Khun says. “They pay attention to the rich and powerful. When the rich want land, they help the rich.”
Protesters want the government to provide legal titles to people still living around the lake and more compensation for the thousands who’ve already been forced to move. Authorities offered some households $8,500 to give up their land and homes — an amount that residents and their advocates say is far below market value and not enough for families to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Police charged Khun and 12 other women with “illegal occupancy of public property” and “obstructing public officials.” Two days later, a judge convicted them after a quick proceeding that “failed to meet even the most rudimentary fair trial standards,” according to Human Rights Watch. Attorneys for the women were not given time to prepare or allowed to call defense witnesses, the group said.
The court sentenced Khun to a year in prison. She began serving time in what she describes as a sweltering, narrow cell that held as many as 60 inmates. “I got very sick,” she says. “My health was weak and I was weary.”
An appeals court upheld her conviction, but reduced her sentence to just over a month.
Cambodian officials did not reply to repeated requests for comment for this story.
In 2011, the World Bank acknowledged problems with the evictions and said it would stop approving new loans in Cambodia until the government reached a fair settlement with people who had lost homes around Boeung Kak Lake.
The bank continued, however, channeling money to the country via already approved projects and trust funds that it oversees for other development players.
Human Rights Watch gives the World Bank credit for taking action on the eviction issue, but faults the bank for being “largely silent” about the reprisals against Khun and other protesters. “Community members say World Bank staff told them that they could not do anything publicly to assist those who were imprisoned or even appeal directly to the government," the advocacy group said.
More than 2,000 miles away in the western Indian state of Gujarat, another community leader has also faced legal attacks as he’s raised concerns about a World Bank Group initiative.
Twenty-nine-year-old Gajendrasinh Jadeja is the sarpanch, or elected chief, in Navinal, a village of 3,100 near the Gulf of Kutch. The rural area has been transformed over the past decade by an industrial boom that includes the construction of a coal-burning power plant by the Tata group, one of India’s largest companies, with $450 million in support from the World Bank Group’s business-lending arm.
Jadeja has been a vocal critic of the coal plant.
He helped U.S.-based environmental lawyers document the plant’s impacts on his community, and won approval in his village council for signing the village on as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that accuses the World Bank Group of violating its commitment to “do no harm” to the people and the environment. The suit, filed in April in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., claims the development bank financed the project even though it knew pollution and habitat destruction caused by the plant would harm fisherfolk, farmers and others living nearby.
Local authorities, in turn, have hit back against the young village chief’s activism around the coal plant and other projects.
“If there is a public hearing,” Jadeja says, “the police will pick me up the evening before, take me away to the police station, and pressure me to give up the agitation. Three or four hours later, they release me and tell me not to say anything at the hearing.”
This has happened three times, he says, most recently before a hearing about the Tata plant.
A station officer at the local police headquarters said police have acted properly. “We have no problem with Mr. Gajendrasinh,” the officer said. “We have never detained him illegally.”
In 2014, local authorities filed a petition to ban Jadeja from a 17,600-square-mile region that includes his village. They accused him of intimidating local industries and trying to extort bribes. Because of the “constant fear” of Jadeja’s threats, the court filing claimed, local businessmen were “unable to do work” or “experience any peace.”
After four months and 10 court hearings, a judge dismissed the case, saying it was “not evident that this man is a tyrant or will spread fear if he remains in the area.”
Tata and the World Bank Group declined to comment on the legal measures pursued against Jadeja. For his part, Jadeja promises he won’t give up his battle against the coal plant and other projects, even if authorities keep trying to silence him.
“They can coerce me, but I have support from my village,” he says. “So my fight goes on.”
Along with urging the World Bank Group to respond vigorously to reprisals, Human Rights Watch also says the bank should be more aggressive about taking steps to prevent retaliation before it happens.
Bank officials, the advocacy group says, should meet regularly with people on the ground to discuss their “protection needs,” and require upfront commitments from borrowers that they won’t pressure or punish development critics.
The World Bank Group says it already has a variety of mechanisms for making sure that people can safely raise concerns about the projects it supports.
It requires, for example, that each project establish a grievance system that allows people to take their complaints directly to project officials. People with concerns can also ask for independent investigations by the World Bank Group’s Inspection Panel, which deals with complaints about loans to governments, or its Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, which deals with complaints about loans to private companies.
Human Rights Watch and other groups say these mechanisms often don’t ensure that people are heard or protected.
A 2014 internal World Bank audit found that project-based grievance procedures are often “box-checking” exercises that exist “on paper but not in practice.” In Cambodia, the World Bank’s Inspection Panel found that the Boeung Kak Lake residents were “subjected to pressure to evacuate their houses without having had access to any grievance procedures.”
People who take their concerns to a higher level by filing detailed complaints with the Inspection Panel or Ombudsman unit say they often face retaliation from governments or companies involved in projects.
In its study, Human Rights Watch interviewed people who had signed on to complaints in 34 Inspection Panel and Ombudsman cases. In 18 of the cases, people reported they’d been “threatened or faced some form of reprisal” that they believed was directly linked to their criticism of a World Bank Group project.
In Cambodia, “Grandma Mommy” Khun and other citizen activists continued to face arrest even after the World Bank’s Inspection Panel documented the harms caused by the evictions around Boeung Kak Lake.
In November, Khun and other remaining lakefront residents set up a bed frame in the boulevard in front of Phnom Penh City Hall to protest floodwaters that were inundating their homes. The flooding was caused, Khun and the others said, by construction crews that were filling the lake to create space for apartments and stores.
Police arrested Khun and six other women and charged them with obstructing traffic. The next day, a court sentenced each of them to a year in prison.
Khun was locked in the same prison as before. She says jailers taunted her and other inmates who complained about their treatment: “If you want to die, kill yourself.”
Amid international outcry about the prison sentences, the government pardoned Khun and other protesters in April, releasing them after they’d served five months of their terms.
The World Bank, meanwhile, is preparing to lift its freeze on new loans to Cambodia’s government, meeting in recent months with Cambodian officials and citizens groups to discuss its plans. In July, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations urged the bank to make sure that the government settles matters with current and former Boeung Kak Lake residents before it approves any new loans.
A World Bank spokesperson said the bank is in discussions with the government about “how to support the country's development in a way that benefits all Cambodians.” She said bank officials also “continue to urge the government to reach a fair and peaceful resolution to land conflicts.”
In late July, Khun won a personal victory. The government awarded her legal title to the plot of land where her family lives.
But her fight is not over.
Some families are still waiting to get official documents allowing them to stay in their homes, while others who’ve been forced to move are still trying to get better compensation. Khun promises she will continue to support their cause.
“I’ll protest until I die,” she says.
Bopha Phorn is an investigative reporter in Cambodia and a regular contributor to the Voice of America. Michael Hudson is a senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Barry Yeoman worked on this story as a fellow with the The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Ben Hallman is investigations/projects editor at The Huffington Post.