For years, hungry provincial farmers struck by flood or drought have gone to the park across from the National Assembly to ask for aid.
For the moment, at least, though they are going to Sam Rainsy Party headquarters.
The headquarters’ muddy courtyard, perhaps a half-kilometer from the park, has become the city’s newest squatter encampment. Party officials estimate that 1,700 people are crowded under eves and blue tarpaulins tied to bamboo poles.
There might be upwards of 3,000 now if party officials did not have to turn many away, said Richard Nguon, who is overseeing the camp. He estimates that 700 people have come to the gates every day.
“The major problem is sanitation,” said Nguon, the chief of the party committee in the US state of Massachusetts, who had brought flood aid from the US and stayed on to help.
The squatters are sharing only five toilets. The human-rights group Licadho offered five more toilets, but they have yet to be dug because of the rains, he said. For now, the squatters are being fed by the party, Licadho, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nguon said. The party has made three requests to the King for food, he said.
A previous group of more than 1,100 left Wednesday and Thursday after getting an aid package from the King including 20,000 riel, a sarong, a towel and a mosquito net, he said. The party paid to transport them to the Norod pagoda across the Monivong Bridge.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said farmers who can come to the capital are not truly needy. The farmers, some of whom were cradling infants with exposed ribs and bloated bellies, disputed that notion. In most cases they said they had sent one person per family to the city while the rest of the family stayed at home.
“It is not right to say so,” said Ek Onn, a villager from Kraing Yeuv commune in Kandal province. “If we were rich, we would not come to sleep here and expose ourselves to mosquitoes.”
Nguon said he had screened the farmers to ensure that they were from the provinces “so the government cannot say we are inciting people [to come].” Farmers from different provinces are being kept in different parts of the courtyard, with the largest groups from Kompong Speu and Koh Kong, he said.
Farmers from Kraing Yeuv, which was targeted by Hun Sen as a development area before the 1998 elections, said their villages remain entrenched in poverty. They said that aid Hun Sen recently distributed in Kraing Yeuv had not reached far-flung rural areas.
“Beggars in Phnom Penh have leftover food and rich people to beg from, but in my area everyone is poor,” said Tim Tong.
Farmers said they looked to Sam Rainsy not as a source of food but as an advocate. “We cannot get aid if we ask by ourselves,” one villager said.
Party officials appear tempted to use the presence of the squatters to their advantage. Nguon said he was not encouraging squatters to join the Sam Rainsy Party. But he said he had made a speech to them Wednesday telling them their vote might determine whether they have to return to Phnom Penh next year.
“I told them to just think about it, who’s wrong and who’s right,” he said.