Foreign direct investment and tourism have steadily been flowing along with the Mekong River from China to Cambodia over the last decade. China is both the largest source of tourism and foreign direct investment in Cambodia, largely thanks to new shopping centers, casinos, beaches, and Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Arguably, the most dramatic transition has happened in Sihanoukville, a coastal city on the southern peninsula that is poised to become the “Shenzhen of Cambodia” thanks to its SEZ and over 300 factories that will be added there. If you took a gap year or backpacked, you may remember it hazily as a place where you could relax on the beach before going to the islands off the coast, but banana boats have now been replaced by container ships and hostels have been replaced by mega-resorts (not to mention the communities and families that have been displaced).
According to Cambodia’s law on investment and Open Development Cambodia, the purpose of Special Economic Zones is to improve Cambodia’s investment climate to enhance “productivity, competitiveness, national economic growth, export promotion, and employment generation in order to reduce poverty.” But who exactly do these zones reduce poverty for? Who do they add value to and who do they extract value from?
Driving through Sihanoukville recently, I was struck by a simple difference: the calibre of housing for Chinese construction workers (modular housing) vs. the calibre of housing for Cambodians (self-constructed shacks). Again, unsurprisingly, according to the Cambodian center for human rights, “the development and operations of SEZs are often intrinsically linked with human rights violations such as land-grabs, poor labour conditions or environmental damage.”
In order to understand the problems our partners are tackling and the challenges inherent to the contexts they’re working in, we spend a lot of time talking with them (as much as we can, although we always wish we could spend more). One conversation stood out recently as indicative to the pace at which Southeast Asia, specifically Cambodia, is changing and the frustrations while operating to address social issues in the face of change brought by investment, tourism and immigration:
“I feel overwhelmed — everything is overwhelming. Most of the local people are not prepared well — they have no Chinese language skills and they don’t know how to work well together. The Chinese [businessmen and construction companies] bring all their own staff and restaurants — the only group of local people who benefit from this are those with land and buildings. No one else.
For example, a good doctor who ran a very good clinic decided to close his clinic and rent it out to because he could rent it without headaches and make so much money.
We don’t know what is going to happen in the future — most people express that they are not happy with the situation. 10–15% of people benefit — for others, everything is more expensive. For middle income and low income people, it’s a struggle. Rents are going up and small businesses, restaurants and coffee shops are closing.
Even for us, we find problems finding services that we need. The influx of Chinese [investment, businessmen and factories] is causing a lot of social issues — they even have their own red light street in our city now. There is a lot of abuse. We keep hearing from our government that it’s a good thing, but it’s not.
Since land and buildings are becoming more and more expensive, the people we work with that are most at risk are moving away to places that are more affordable. Now it’s increasingly difficult for us to work with them. It’s hard for us and for them to find justice.”