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Southeast Asia, explained

Cambodian transport minister: what billion-dollar railway deal?

Questions surround Cambodia's largest-ever project
Cambodia railways 20120104Enlarge
Cambodians sitting along railroad tracks outside their shanty homes in the Boeng Kak slum area of Phnom Penh in 2009. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambodia's latest approved mega-project is a doozy: an $11.2 billion China-funded endeavor to build a steel mine in the country's north linked to a coastal port via 250 miles of railway tracks.

It's difficult to overemphasize this project's scale, which amounts in dollar figures to nearly 90 percent of the country's current annual GDP. As an Asian Development Bank official tells Reuters, it "must be the largest-ever project in Cambodia."

Cambodians and the world at large have reason to wonder about the project's impact: building a 250-mile railway is likely to trigger home evictions, which have a reputation for violence and abuse in Cambodia. The government also acknowledges that they haven't completed an assessment of the mine's potential environmental damage.

The entire project is surrounded with questions. You might assume that Iv Tek -- Cambodia's transport minister, who presided over the deal's preliminary approval -- would be the man with the answers.

But when the small-but-aggressive Cambodia Daily newspaper confronted the minister with questions, they found that "he did not know a great deal about the project."

“I don’t know what the companies will do," he told the newspaper. "Let’s wait and see all together."

Is he really that clueless? Is he playing dumb to ward off tough questions? Either way, these are not so comforting words from an official holding the reigns of a project that will drastically shape lives and Cambodia's already ailing environment.

For more quality reporting on the project's lack of transparency, check out this recent piece in the Cambodia's Daily.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/southeast-asia/cambodian-transport-minister-what-billion-dollar-railway-