Government officials continued to insist Tuesday that five deaths in Kompong Speu province’s Baset district were not the result of hunger or severe food shortage, and blamed the media for exaggerating the situation.
However, aid groups and rights organizations, while studiously avoiding the word “starvation,” maintained that shortage of food had likely contributed to the fatalities.
Pen Sambo, cabinet chief for Kompong Speu provincial Governor Chap Nhalyvoud, said that a visit to the affected area showed that food shortages were not the main reason for the five deaths.
For example, he said, Yem Onn, 60, died of cancer—not lack of food. However, his wife, Pav Tol, 55, reported that her husband asked for a bowl of rice before dying.
“They were short of food, but they could earn a can of rice here and there,” Pen Sambo said of the couple.
And according to Pen Sambo, Kin Lin, 13, hanged himself because of problems at school.
His adopted mother said to reporters that the boy committed suicide after being told there was not enough food for him to eat.
Pen Sambo blamed the media for the villagers’ conflicting accounts of what took place in Ta Moeun village. “The differing information is a result of the media over-hyping the news,” he said.
Peou Samy, secretary-general of the National Center for Disaster Management, also insisted that none had died because of a lack of food. He nonetheless mentioned that the center and the NGO Padek were distributing food assistance in the area.
Thomas Keusters, country director for the World Food Program, said the situation in Kompong Speu could be more accurately characterized as an “acute food crisis.”
A Padek official said he was still assessing whether there was a food shortage in the area. “I cannot confirm now because I am waiting for a report,” said Kep Kanaro, Padek’s human resource and program manager. Asked why the report was taking so long, he cited “transportation problems,” adding, “Hopefully after Pchum Ben we can distribute food.”
Pchum Ben ends Oct 4.
Chea Meng Tieng, assistant project officer for the UN Children’s Fund in Kompong Speu, said villagers told him the same stories they had told the media regarding the five deaths.
“According to my observations, it is a lack of proper food,” Chea Meng Tieng said of the deaths. Even relatively well-to-do houses in the village appeared to have no rice stocks in reserve, he said.
“If they had enough food, maybe they would still be sick, but they would survive,” Chea Meng Tieng said.