Hundreds of poor people chased from place to place by police for a week finally got help Wednesday, when the Royal Palace distributed aid to about 1,000 families at Wat Norod Rainsey.
“We arrived in Phnom Penh [Aug 28] hoping for a donation from the King,” said an exhausted-looking Chan Noch. “It has been very, very hard to be away from home for more than a week. My children don’t have rice.”
Chan Noch, 38, was among 51 families from Phum Tuol in Kandal province who came to the capital last week to beg for help. They ran into a political firestorm, however, when officials declared aid will no longer be distributed near the National Assembly.
It is a long-standing tradition in Cambodia that the poor can petition the government or King Norodom Sihanouk. Recently, however, police have been breaking up camps near the Royal Palace or National Assembly, saying they endanger public health.
Last week, the palace said aid would no longer be distributed in Phnom Penh, but that palace employees would travel to villages to investigate claims before making donations.
That sparked widespread negative publicity for the palace, however, prompting the King to say earlier this week that he was “hurt” by criticisms of his relief efforts. Meanwhile, protesters were caught in the crossfire. On Aug 29, about 500 were driven away from their campsite near the National Assembly by police.
Some gave up and went home, while others went to Wat Svay Pope, near the headquarters of the Sam Rainsy Party. On Aug 30, they were moved again, and many took shelter at the opposition party headquarters.
That same day Prime Minister Hun Sen said he did not believe that all those protesting at the National Assembly were poverty-stricken. Real flood victims can’t go to the National Assembly because they’re too poor, he said, suggesting that too often those who beg at the National Assembly are “cheaters” and puppets of the Sam Rainsy Party.
The King said Monday that he believes he is being unfairly accused of being partial to the opposition, when in fact he provides impartial assistance on humanitarian grounds.
About 50 employees of the Royal Palace were taking pains Wednesday to ensure that those lining up for aid were not cheaters, although a half-dozen brusquely refused to answer questions. “I cannot talk, I am so busy,” said one palace worker, walking quickly away to stand under a nearby tree.
By late afternoon more than 1,000 people waited patiently at Wat Norod Rainsey, squatting in long lines on the rain-soaked dirt. Group leaders vouched for everyone in their village groups, and each supplicant put his or her thumbprint on a list.
The supplicants certainly appeared to be poor. Virtually everyone was thin and bedraggled after living with little cover for a week; many had young children, were nursing babies, or were handicapped or blind.
“I never had to do this before,” said Nuon Samnoh, 38, from Phum Kor Andet in Kandal province, which is plagued by drought and flood. The 50 kg of rice “will last us about a month.”
“I don’t think it will be enough.” Nuon Samnoh said.