Friday is World Red Cross Day, which celebrates the work of a global humanitarian organization founded more than 150 years ago on principles of political, racial and religious neutrality.
In Phnom Penh on Friday morning, politicians and tycoons will gather at Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) headquarters to shower Bun Rany—the CRC president and wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen—with millions of dollars in donations to the organization.
In preparation for the occasion, promotional banners reading, “Where there is suffering, there is the Cambodian Red Cross” were hung across the city’s major boulevards this week.
Yet events of the recent past suggest that CRC relief is served first to those aligned with the CPP, and then to others, often with a hearty dose of ruling party propaganda.
In October 2013, as seasonal floods that displaced more than 50,000 people receded, Ms. Rany delivered a speech at a CRC humanitarian event in Pailin province placing her organization firmly in the corner of the ruling party.
“When there are floods or any other incidents, fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters have seen that there is no other party coming to help you here…there is only the CPP because all civil servants are CPP,” she said, offering bags of rice and other supplies to the flood victims.
After media picked up on the speech, the CRC came out and defended its neutrality, as did government spokesman Phay Siphan, who said that Ms. Rany was only involved “as a private person in private activities and spends her own money and her own resources, so she can do anything she likes.”
In fact, Ms. Rany was spending the money of CRC donors—more than $14 million was handed over on this day last year—and she is not the only CPP-aligned official making decisions at the CRC.
Annie Sok An, the wife of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, is a CRC vice president, as is Khuon Sodary, a CPP lawmaker for Kandal province. Preah Vihear provincial governor Oum Mara is head of the CRC there. Ban Srey Mom, the wife of former Pailin governor Y Chhien, is committee chairwoman in that province. Choeng Sopheap, the wife of CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin—who has a 99-year lease on the Boeng Kak area and donated $100,000 to the CRC in 2013—is also an official. And the list goes on.
“You only need to look at the composition of the board. All the way down to district level, they are members of the ruling party—no exceptions,” said Mu Sochua, an opposition CNRP lawmaker. “And they are automatically appointed.”
At the CRC headquarters Thursday, hundreds of members and youth volunteers rushed to finalize decorations on the white marquees that will this morning host the country’s business and political elite.
Sitting among the workers, CRC Secretary-General Pum Chantinie refused to reveal the composition of the central committee or the process for selecting provincial leaders.
“Why do you need to know this,” she asked. “Why don’t you ask me something interesting?”
Contacted later by telephone, Ms. Chantinie claimed that the CRC adhered to the Red Cross’ seven fundamental principles, which include political impartiality and neutrality.
“Yes, we do follow the code of the International Federation of the Red Cross [IFRC],” she said. “If you want to know, you can ask them.”
Anne Leclerc heads the IFRC’s regional office in Bangkok and will be at the ceremony Friday. Contacted Thursday, she said reports of the CRC’s tendency to break from the Red Cross’ principles had reached her office.
“I am aware of this perception, this is what we keep hearing,” she said.
Ms. Leclerc said that she would use Friday’s ceremony to impress the global organization’s values on the Cambodian branch that carries its name.
“Definitely, World Red Cross Day is an opportunity to promote our principles, including independence, impartiality and neutrality,” she said. “At all times, we aim to ensure [the CRC’s] work is independent and non-discriminatory.”
In July 2014, the buildup of political and social tension that followed the disputed 2013 national election erupted when opposition protesters fought back against baton-wielding district security guards, who for months had been used to violently crush demonstrations.
A series of opposition lawmakers and officials were arrested over the brawl, while 37 of the security guards and a number of protesters were injured.
The CRC—which provided no relief to any of the scores of protesters injured or the families of seven shot dead by state forces in the previous months—jumped to help the security guards, donating a total of $35,000, again raising questions about its neutrality.
“Human rights defenders, when they have a disaster, they do not see the face of the CRC,” Kem Ley, founder of the grassroots Khmer for Khmer political organization, said Thursday. “Almost all humanitarian assistance comes with political propaganda.”
The CRC counts more than 50,000 youth volunteers among its ranks. Sixteen universities in Phnom Penh are home to CRC youth clubs, ensuring that the organization has access to the brightest young minds in the country, Mr. Ley said.
“If they show a willingness to support the CPP, the CPP will be watching them,” he said. “If they play the politics for a while, they will be recruited by the CPP.”
Mr. Siphan, the government spokesman, acknowledged that volunteering was a worthwhile activity, but denied any affiliation between the CRC and CPP.
“It is just a good start, a good place to volunteer and learn to serve the community,” he said. “But there are requirements to serve in the government, such as passing the state exam.”
Back at CRC headquarters, Yam Pagnha, a 22-year-old history graduate from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said she became a CRC youth volunteer in 2012 to enhance her career prospects.
“Joining the Red Cross was my first step,” she said.
In a lengthy conversation, Ms. Pagnha dodged questions about her political allegiances and career aspirations before finally revealing that, after finishing university in 2014, she had taken a position as an administrative assistant at City Hall.
“That is my decision,” she said. “I want to become a politician.”