Flood Victims Get Rice, Ride Out of Capital

As the elaborate funeral procession of CPP lawmaker Vann Sun Heng moved past the National Assembly on Wednesday, about 400 people watched in silence.

The ragged onlookers, clustered in the park across the street,  saw hundreds of well-dressed mourners following the parliamentarian’s gold-trimmed casket.

Those watching the procession included about 100 people from Poipet in Banteay Mean­chey province who came to Phnom Penh months ago to protest what they claim is the theft of their land.

The rest were flood victims from eight provinces around Cambodia, who came to the capital in search of aid. The 300 flood victims had been missed in an early-morning sweep, organized by Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, that rounded up more than 1,600 victims and shipped them home.

Police were polite but firm Wednesday morning as the people, the third consignment in as many days, were loaded onto trucks and boats and sent back to their homes with a bag of rice.

It was unclear what conditions they would face at home.

Rien Sopheap, 25, of Sa Ang commune in Kandal province, was one of those who missed the forced trip home. He said the water in his house had been up to his waist when he left a week ago.

Since Sunday, a total of 2,705 flood victims have been removed from the capital so city workers could clean the rubbish-strewn areas where they had been living.

“These are the last people that we have sent back,” Chea So­phara said. Villagers were given 20 kg of rice per family and sent home “because we need time to organize for the national celebrations,” the governor said.

Ceremonies for King Norodom Sihanouk’s 78th birthday begin Sun­day, while the Water Festival will be celebrated next month.

As the military trucks rumbled out of the city, some villagers wondered how they would manage.

“We were here in Phnom Penh for seven days to ask the King for [help], but now we got only rice, not money,” said Kruy Chantha, 32, from Krang Yov commune in Kandal province. “How can we go back to our village?” he asked as the truck pulled away.

Flood aid has become controversial in recent weeks, with CPP officials being accused of giving aid to those who are politically con­nected, rather than those who need it most. The allegations have been adamantly denied.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy led 3,000 marchers through the city last Friday to protest flood-relief practices that he called corrupt. Tuesday night, he began a hunger strike to show solidarity with those left hungry by the flooding. He had said he would eat again when he raised $90,000, his estimate of the cost to feed all the protesters for one month.

Wednesday night, he said he hopes to be able to end his hun­ger strike this morning. “If I can raise enough money to give them rice and get them home, I will stop the strike,” he said.

As evening set in he was holding an impromptu fund-raiser on the sidewalk, urging passersby to donate food or money. As rice, noodles and soy sauce piled up, Sam Rainsy predicted he would gather enough food and money to send the remaining people home.

At about 6 pm, Sam Rainsy, who was camping out under a tarp in the park across from the Na­tional Assembly, left briefly to distribute food to flood victims. While he was gone, police dismantled his tent. He is continuing his hunger strike at a nearby wat. Later in the evening, police set up roads to cordon off the park.

Meanwhile, Chhorn Hei, director of the King’s Cabinet, said the monarch has made extensive do­nations to all poor people and flood victims who asked, regardless of political affiliation.

Palace officials also said they de­plored the politicization of aid, noting that when the King gets a letter requesting aid, the aid is sent to the villages so victims have no reason to congregate in the capital.



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