Donations of food, clothing and money intended for Cambodia’s poor more often go to friends and relatives of provincial politicians, some government officials have recently acknowledged.
The donations, from Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen, are apparently being used to reward people for supporting political parties and voting the “right” way, villagers around Cambodia allege.
Som Souen, deputy chief of cabinet for the CPP, said the donations are intended for poor people but that some local officials may be distributing them improperly. “Prime Minister Hun Sen and officials from Phnom Penh do not know who the poor people are unless the local authorities register them.’’
“We allow local authorities to manage this for us,’’ Som Souen said. He admits, however, some have done so corruptly, he said, noting that party members are not likely to be poor.
Senator Sam Kanitha (Fun) said her party heard so many complaints from people in the provinces that, last month, it set up a committee in Phnom Penh to list those eligible for donations.
“Gifts were not going to the poor, but to local authorities and their relatives,’’ she said.
In one case at the end of June, Prince Ranarridh donated 9 million riel ($2,368) to teachers at Batheay College in Batheay district, Kompong Cham province—but the local official passed along only 500,000 riel ($131.58).
Sam Kanitha said party officials are investigating the matter.
In interviews across 21 towns and provinces in the past 10 weeks, people told the same story: rice and fish, sarongs, krama and money go, not to the needy, but to those who can be counted on to vote the party line.
They say the problem is so severe that people increasingly feel they must come to Phnom Penh in order to get fair treatment, because local aid operations have so many problems.
“Government officials sometimes come to Prey Veng to give gifts to people, but I never received anything from them,’’ said Iem Hong, 48, a struggling farmer who does not belong to a political party.
He said he had asked commune and district workers in Prey Veng to put his family on the list to receive donations. “They refused, saying if I want it, I should go and ask for it myself.’’
Official gifts to the poor are a long-standing tradition in Cambodia, stemming from the days when the King would travel throughout his domains, handing out presents.
The donations are intended to temporarily ease living conditions for people undergoing hardships. Each family typically receives rice, canned fish, salt and from 5,000 to 20,000 riel ($1.32 to $5.26).
But villagers say that it doesn’t work out that way.
Iem Hong said that although he could not convince Prey Veng officials to put him on the list, many other people had no trouble.
“Most people who can get this donation are relatives of chiefs of the villages, communes, districts, the police and militias and especially members of political parties,’’ Iem Hong said.
“I have no relative working in local government so I am not registered.’’
Soeun Van, who lives in Pursat, said it’s the same in his area. Local authorities ignore the poor, he said, helping “only their families and relatives and people who support their political parties.’’
As leaders, Hun Sen and Prince Ranarridh “should be neutral,’’ Soeun Van said, instead of using the donations to bolster their respective parties.
Soeun Van said his crops were poor this year and if politics weren’t a factor, he would qualify for aid without question. “The gift is always given to political members and supporters.”
Iem Hong and Souen Van were both interviewed in Phnom Penh, where each came to join the ranks of protesters from their towns and other villages to seek help from the government and King Norodom Sihanouk.
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said it is wrong for officials to use the donations to strengthen their political hold on a district.
She suggested the donations be turned over to non-political organizations in the districts, so that they could register the legitimately needy and see that they get the donations.