A Moeun village, Baset district, Kompong Speu province – Shading her face with a red-and-white cotton krama as she squats by a dirt road in the hot afternoon sun, Yem Thoy, 76, remembers the irony of starving amidst a plentiful rice crop during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Times are better now, she said. People are free to eat what they grow-but they are free to go hungry, too, if nothing grows.
“There was a lot of rice, but we weren’t allowed to eat it,” she recalled of life under the Khmer Rouge. “Now we cannot eat because there is no rice.”
According to Yem Thoy and other villagers, droughts-such as the dry spell that has settled over the region for the past few years-while always harsh, were not always associated with death, as is the case today. Five people in Ta Moeun and Sangriem Bo villages in Banteay Ampil commune died in late August and early September, villagers and officials report.
Some say the deaths were caused by hunger; others disagree and have blamed disease, old age and suicide. Still others say they were from a combination of factors that included hunger.
Ny Chakrya, chief investigator at rights group Adhoc, said natural disaster was to blame for the villagers’ dire situation. “But land concessions make them more vulnerable to starvation,” he said.
In the past, when crops failed, the people living around Ta Moeun village would take their ox carts into the forest to harvest bamboo shoots, timber for firewood, grasses for brooms and herbs for traditional medicines, villagers said. The bamboo shoots they ate themselves; the other goods they could usually trade for food at the market.
“Now that’s not possible because we would be arrested for cutting and transporting timber,” said farmer Sar Siv, 38. “We cannot go to the forest because it belongs to the government-rich people occupy it,” he said.
Ing Touch, 39, agreed. “But now most of the forest is already gone, other people occupy it and we cannot get in,” she added.
And because there are no forests for hungry villagers to forage in, locals have been limited to foraging in their meager rice fields.
“I eat boiled rice and vegetables,” said Em Yet, 10, when asked what his diet had consisted of over the last few months. “Other than rice, I eat snails or crabs that I catch myself,” he said.
Villagers reported late last month that Em Yet’s 80-year-old grandfather, Ing Mang, had died of hunger. On Sunday, Em Yet’s uncle, Yang Khun, 52, also died of hunger, they claimed.
Ta Moeun village chief Phouk Sun confirmed Monday that Yang Khun had died in the village. But he was not listed among the five who died in Ta Moeun and Sangriem Bo villages, he said.
Phouk Sun said he had not reported the death to local authorities because the man was from another village: Trapaing Khchorng, in Banteay Ampil commune.
Yang Khun was going hungry in his own village, so he came to Ta Moeun in hopes that his brother might have food to spare, Phouk Sun said. His brother didn’t, and Yang Khun starved, he said. Nhim Vanda, first deputy of the National Committee for Disaster Management, said Tuesday he was investigating the latest report of a death from starvation. He also reiterated that the other five deaths were not the result of starvation, but of disease, old age, sickness or suicide.
Banteay Ampil Commune Chief Kong Kim, a CPP member, and the commune’s first deputy chief, Uy Hoeun, an opposition party member, describe themselves as friends and say they work together for the commune’s best interests.
But their assessment of what caused the food shortages in their commune are at times surprisingly divergent.
Kong Kim said reduced access to the forest had played only a minor role, and blamed the situation on the years of drought. “A few people in my commune go to the forest,” he said. “But nowadays there are few forests and it’s too far for them to go to make a profit.”
He also repeated the official line that deaths in the commune were the result of sickness, old age or suicide, adding that media reports of starvation in the area were inaccurate.
Uy Hoeun agreed that it was difficult to say exactly why people had died. “It is difficult to say, it is a difficult definition,” he said, referring to starvation.
However, the forests that once served as a safety net during hard times are either gone or off limits, logged in the 1990s by the military, companies big and small, and villagers as well, Uy Hoeun explained.
The forests that remain, he said, have been granted to companies to plant acacia trees, mangos and other agricultural products; set aside for wildlife preserves; or bought up by wealthy residents of Phnom Penh investing in land.
“Before, people could get some access [to forests], but this year and last year there is strict control,” Uy Hoeun said. “When people go to the forest, they see signs-you cannot just go in.” Villagers say they still occasionally forage near the Aural Mountains, but that requires a trip of two to three days by ox cart, Uy Hoeun and several villagers said. “Now if people want to get firewood in this area, they must get permission,” Uy Hoeun added.
Ieng Saveth, deputy director of the Southern Tonle Sap region for the Forestry Administration, said that the law on forestry allowed people to collect forest byproducts, and that he was unaware of people being banned from such activities.
“I only hear reports that people scare my officials with machetes and axes…. People clear forest to make farms and scare my officials,” he said.
Commune Chief Kong Kim claimed that the commune received a constant supply of food from the National Committee for Disaster Management and the World Food Program before and after the initial Radio Free Asia reports of deaths from starvation, which he branded as inaccurate.
He also said that villagers were not as destitute as they claimed. “If they want to eat, people can look for frogs or sell their labor and buy smoked fish,” Kong Kim said.
Villagers, however, complained that selling their labor forced them to leave their children alone for long periods of time and the work didn’t earn them enough money to buy sufficient food.
Lok Rorn, 38, whose 5-week old baby, Chan Chamroeun, garnered significant attention from Khmer-language media when photos of his shockingly emaciated condition were published, said she had faced such problems as a laborer.
“Enough, but we must eat little,” she said of the money earned by selling her labor.
Villagers said Chan Chamroeun looked much healthier after being taken to Kantha Bopha Hospital in Phnom Penh following media reports of his dire condition, but that on Sunday he still looked very, very thin.
Kong Kim also said media attention to the plight of Ta Moeun village had left it flush with supplies and made other villages in the commune jealous.
“Why does this village get rice again and again-those who do not get rice complain,” he said. “People just say they don’t have anything.”