Local security forces began their annual sweep of Phnom Penh’s riverfront and adjacent tourist lanes for beggars and homeless people yesterday ahead of this year’s Water Festival.
The national holiday, expected to bring some 3 million people to the city for three days of boat races, begins today.
While the government defends the sweeps as a must for visitor safety, local rights groups in the past have said authorities are unlawfully detaining beggars and homeless at state-run centers where they are physically abused.
Daun Penh district deputy governor Sok Penhvuth said a mixed force of police and military police ran its first sweep of the festival Friday morning from 3 am to 6 am, picking up a total 37 beggars, homeless people and drug users from the riverside, several side streets and area parks.
“We collected them in order to prepare the public order for the Water Festival,” Mr Penhvuth said. “They always disturb the national and foreign visitors. If we don’t sweep them it harms the honor of the nation and the country’s leaders.”
The deputy district governor said the sweeps would help curb crime during the festival.
“Sometimes the drug users snatch the bags from the visitors. We want the visitors to have a good time,” he said, adding that sweeps would resume this morning.
Everyone they round up, he said, gets handed over to the city’s social affairs department.
From there, they usually end up in one of the department’s shelters.
Moeun, a 70-year-old beggar who declined to give her full name, said yesterday that she spent three weeks at the Prey Speu center just outside of Phnom Penh after police picked her up during the Water Festival last year.
When she and a group of other beggars saw authorities coming this morning, she said, they ran for cover.
“When the big festival comes we worry about arrest,” said Moeun. “It is a bad time for us.”
Another woman said she only turned to begging to feed her family after her husband passed away five years ago.
“I don’t want to beg, but I am poor and I don’t have a job,” he said. “I beg to support my five children.”
In previous years, social affairs department director Sorn Sophal acknowledged that the municipality sent people to the shelters, but strictly on a voluntary basis.
Yesterday, Mr Sophal said the city would not be sending anyone it rounds up during this year’s festival to the centers. He said the city will be handing them off instead to various non-government groups but claimed he could not remember any of the groups’ names.