Victims put pressure on ANZ over the loss of their land
by Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker
Pheun Ra, 42, was visiting her mother in hospital when security guards from the ANZ bank-financed Phnom Penh Sugar Company arrived at her small plot of land in Cambodia's south.
Over several hours, the guards demolished her home as part of a land grab to make way for a new sugar plantation backed by one of Cambodia's most powerful figures.
As she recounts the experience during an interview in Melbourne, her voice quavers, before she begins quietly sobbing.
"There has been great suffering," she says of her family's struggle after being allocated a smaller plot of non-arable land and compensation of $65.
Life was basic but bearable before the plantation in the desperately poor province of Kampong Speu. Ra grew coconuts, bananas and mangos, earning enough income to support her family and pay for her five children to go to school. That changed when she lost her farm.
The ramifications of the land grab seven years ago, and the role of ANZ in financing the Phnom Penh Sugar (PPS) refinery, are still being felt today.
Ra, along with three other farmers forcibly evicted from their land, has travelled to Melbourne on behalf of almost 500 Cambodian families. Assisted by non-government organisation Oxfam, the four farmers will this week lobby some of ANZ's institutional investors, along with the federal government official responsible for investigating their complaint against ANZ.
The farming families represented by Ra and another farmer, 61 year old grandmother Khorn Khorn, are calling on ANZ to forfeit the few million dollars of likely profit it made from financing the PPS project to compensate those adversely impacted.
ANZ's response to the farmers' complaints has been to attribute responsibility and liability to PPS and highlight Cambodian media reports from 2016 that detail the sugar company's compensation scheme, in which up to 120 families have accepted packages of around $500.
"We acknowledge concerns expressed by NGOs regarding our former customer, Phnom Penh Sugar (PPS), and have maintained dialogue with all relevant stakeholders in Cambodia and Australia," a bank spokesman told Fairfax Media.
But other media reports have raised serious questions about the compensation scheme, while respected advocacy group Human Rights Watch has attacked the process as coercive and made under the shadow of threats and duress.
ANZ cut financial ties with PPS in 2014, after Fairfax Media first revealed the plantation project had been tainted by child labour, military-backed land grabs, forced evictions and food shortages.
But it was too late for the farmers forced from their homes in 2010.
Khorn also breaks down while telling her story to Fairfax Media. She was visiting her husband in hospital when private military officers came to take control of her land. Khorn returned home from hospital to find her house a smoking ruin. Her husband died a short time later.
In a cruel twist, the loss of her small subsistence farming operation forced Khorn to remove two of her grandchildren from school and send them to work for PPS.
"It makes me angry and resentful but I have no choice," she explains.
Khorn and other farmers are essentially appealing to the bank's conscience and issuing a plea to its shareholders.
ANZ faces no legal obligation to pay compensation and Fairfax Media understands that a recent draft report completed by a federal government official in response to the OECD complaint assigns little culpability to ANZ.
Underlining the Australian bank's original decision to finance the refinery is the argument that it is better to have Western finance and scrutiny in developing nations then none at all.
But it is fair to question whether ANZ should have ever got into bed with PPS, or indeed entered the world of Cambodian banking, given the obvious risks of operating in a business environment bedevilled by crony capitalism.
ANZ's decision in 2005 to set up a joint-venture banking operation in Cambodia with controversial millionaire businessman Kith Meng was heavily criticised in a confidential risk assessment completed by consultants for ANZ, who warned that Meng was a ruthless businessman of questionable integrity. The ANZ executive who launched the banking joint venture was Elmer Funke Kupper (who recently faced intense scrutiny over dealings Tabcorp had in Cambodia while he was CEO of the gaming company).
Mr Funke Kupper had departed ANZ by the time the bank decided to help finance the PPS operation owned by Meng's associate, Senator Ly Yong Phat, a political powerbroker and one of Cambodia's richest men.
A 2007 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks describes how Phat was accused of using his "influence to send armed military police forces to grab land from villagers and to clear their lands by burning down their crops and trees". It was no surprise to many Cambodia watchers when similar allegations emerged at the Kampong Speu plantation project.
ANZ ordered at least two audits of the project - in 2010 and 2013 - to ensure that its dealings with PPS were in line with the Equator Principles, a voluntary code that commits financial institutions to funding projects with "sound social and environmental standards".
Oxfam's Helen Szoke said that ANZ's 2014 decision to sever financial ties with PPS does not absolve the bank of responsibility for what has happened to the farmers of Kampong Speu.
"It is untenable that ANZ would want to keep the profits from a venture so closely associated with human rights abuses, and which appeared to breach its own standards," she says.
The previous revelations in Fairfax Media about PPS project has helped push three of the big four banks, ANZ, Westpac and NAB, to commit to avoiding projects exposed to the risks of land grabs. Separately, ANZ is seeking to exit its Cambodian banking business, in line with the sale of its Asian assets to concentrate on its Australian operations.
For Ra and Khorn, the impact of the sugar plantation project is far more tangible and enduring. Without the livelihood provided by their confiscated farms, they are faced with a stark choice between sending their children to school and putting regular meals on the table.
ANZ's impending divestment may remove Cambodia from its business model, will do nothing to remove the ugly stain of a business venture that some within the bank may now wonder was worth the trouble.