At the crossroads

The clock above the entrance to Battambang railway station reads two minutes past eight. It has been two minutes past eight ever since the railway closed down and the station was abandoned in 2009. Today, the track and the marshalling yards are overgrown with weeds and cows graze amid the dilapidated, graffiti-covered locomotive sheds. The 1930s-station building itself however is still in relatively good condition and has even been recently repainted to highlight its deco-inspired facade.

The railway station is fitting symbol for this sleepy, almost timeless, town in the west of Cambodia: Unlike the capital Phnom Penh, beset by choking traffic and dust-filled construction sites, Cambodia’s second city still has the same laid-back feel and look it had back in the early 2000s. Children still play in the river after school, market stall holders doze in the shade and no one seems in much of a hurry to do anything. The old French colonial buildings on the west bank of the Sangker River are still there, many now sympathetically occupied by bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. There are a few new hotels lining the east bank of the river and the suburban sprawl extends much further into the countryside but there is no mad rush to build new high-rise apartment buildings, office or shopping complexes. In fact, a few of the hotel or apartment construction projects that were started a while ago have now, like the railway, been abandoned and stand alone, skeletal and deserted.

Battambang has an egalitarian feel to it. You do not see the obscene displays of extreme wealth evident in the capital, nor the extreme poverty. People are still poor but the cost of living has not increased dramatically and I did not sense the same anger and frustration at wealth inequality that was so clearly on display in Phnom Penh.

But all that might be about to change if the provincial government gets its way. The government has a “20-year master plan” to significantly improve regional infrastructure, particularly links to the coast, and transform Battambang into a hub for agricultural-processing industries. The government hopes that by developing the region’s massively under-utilized road, rail and river transport networks, local agricultural products such as rice, cassava and maize can be processed locally and then shipped at relatively low cost to international markets.

Currently, there is just one road to the deep-water port of Sihanoukville, and that has to take a detour through Phnom Penh, making for a journey time of at least ten hours on a good day. As mentioned above, the railway is currently inoperable and the river only carries the occasional flat-bottomed canoe. Under the master plan, the railway linking Battambang with Phnom Penh and the border town of Poipet will be resurrected and a new road built providing a direct link to the coast from National Road 5 in the neighbouring province of Pursat. This, combined with the development of local agri-business, it is hoped, will finally integrate Battambang into the global economy.

The Sangker River south of Battambang

Needless to say, integration into the global economy is not necessarily a good thing; particularly if you look at what has happened to Phnom Penh since it became an important manufacturing hub for the garment industry and the locus of new investment pouring into Cambodia from China. It seems clear that the only people who will benefit from putting Battambang on the international map will be big business and the local government officials that big business will have to bribe in order to get a piece of the action. It is difficult to see how the lives of ordinary people will be improved: On the contrary, the cost of land and everyday consumer products will inevitably increase and the essential resources that people depend upon such as water from the Sangker River will be depleted. Drought is already a major problem across western Cambodia and the development of thirsty agri-businesses will only make matters worse.

Is there then an argument for keeping the railway station clock set at two minutes past eight and leaving Battambang as a quiet backwater where not much happens and little changes? Possibly, but that would ignore that fact that some things do need to change, specifically the provision of decent healthcare and schooling as well as environmental protection and the far more efficient management of water, soil and forests.

Given the current political climate, the only real hope for the people of Battambang is that the provincial government leaders will be too incompetent or will not have the political will to push through their 20-year master plan, while at the other end of the political spectrum, grassroots organizations that do actually care about the plight of ordinary people can gain some measure of control over local resources in the commune governments.

There are a few socially responsible businesses that provide employment and are making a real difference to people’s lives in Battambang but there is a limit to what they can achieve. Concerted action by local communities to safeguard their land rights and protect the environment, as well as demanding better social welfare, are essential if life in Battambang is going change for the better. And just as importantly, strong community is needed if people are to prevent the city being overrun by big business and turned into another Phnom Penh.

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