Australian Firm Suspends Cambodia Train Operation

Australian company Toll has suspended its involvement in the running of trains in Cambodia for a year, potentially derailing a project that's been partly funded by Australian taxpayers.

Toll has a 30 year concession to run the country's train system, which is currently being refurbished with funding from the Asian Development Bank and AusAID.

But the refurbishment of the lines has been fraught with delays and the project has been heavily criticised because of the impact on poor Cambodians whose homes have been moved to make way for the tracks.

Critics also say AusAID shouldn't have funded the project for the benefit of Toll.

Matthew Hilton from Aid/Watch spoke to Southeast Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel.

MATTHEW HILTON: We welcome the suspension. We're not entirely surprised, there had been rumours earlier in the week.

I guess our first reaction is the elephant in the room is that of resettlement; there doesn't appear to be any mention in the Asian Development Bank's statement about whether they'll be responding to any of their substantive issues of the problematic resettlement process.

It's clear that there's been a really haphazard relocation process of a few thousand people, including to resettlement sites that had no water, electricity and generally people's standard of living was increasingly problematic.

ZOE DANIEL: And in fact you had called, hadn't you, for Toll to pull out of the project. Do you see their suspension as a reaction to pressure from you?

MATTHEW HILTON: I think that would be giving too much credit to Aid/Watch. There've been a lot of groups, particularly groups on the ground, who've been working at this for a long time.

But I just wanted to reiterate that suspension is the first part of what we called for and many other groups have called for. The looking at the resettlement process still needs to be done.

ZOE DANIEL: Toll argues that they're not responsible for that part of the project. And they say that they're responsible for just running the train lines and not what's happening now in terms of refurbishing and resettling people.

MATTHEW HILTON: Absolutely. It's a joint burden I guess between Asian Development Bank, AusAID and the Royal Government of Cambodia. But I think it's a bit of a cop-out for Toll to say that. They're receiving the benefit from the people who have been moved, as in the land that's been taken.

So, basically we think a whole bunch of people have been intimidated into losing their land and paid inadequate compensation. So we've suggested a suspension to stop that going forward but also a process to look backwards to adequately compensate people.

ZOE DANIEL: It could be argued that this will lead to the reverse; that Toll might be trying to put pressure on by suspending to speed up the relocation of those people and to speed up delays that have been happening on the refurbishment of the lines.

MATTHEW HILTON: That's a definite concern. One thing the government of Cambodia has been saying is that a lot of NGOs (Non-Government Organisation) and a lot of the communities affected are anti-development and this probably will just add to their arsenal.

ZOE DANIEL: We've approach AusAID for a comment unsuccessfully; they argue that this is an issue for Toll not for them, but is that really the case? I mean if Toll did pull out, AusAID would have effectively funded the refurbishment for an Australian company to run it and then there's no one to run it.

MATTHEW HILTON: AusAID has said that part of the rationale for the project is about kick-starting privatisation of railway lines in Asia; that was in their concept notes. So we think that AusAID would be pretty concerned about Toll not being involved.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: That's Matthew Hilton from Aid/Watch speaking there to our South east Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel. And as Zoe mentioned, neither Toll nor AusAID would comment.

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