Officials, Doctors Vouch for Food, Water Stocks

Phnom Penh’s food and water are safe to consume, officials said Sunday, despite rampant rumors of poisonings.

“The food and the water are fine,” Eng Huot, director-general of the Health Ministry, said. “No poison.”

Locally brewed rice wine, tainted by methanol that has killed about 60 people and hospitalized 400, is the only danger, he said Sunday by telephone.

Health officials—foreign and Cambodian alike—echo those statements. Last week, Stephen Borron, a visiting US toxicologist at Calmette Hospital, said widespread fear is common amid a real poisoning. People’s emotions can take over, producing symptoms of illness—head­ache, upset stomach, dizziness, short breath.

But none of those symptoms have resulted from contamination. “So far, the Ministry of Health doctors said they could not find any poison among those people who said they ate poisoned food or drank poisoned water,” Interior Ministry spokes­man Khieu Sopheak said Sunday.

Officials tie the panic to politics. Rumors of Vietnamese people poisoning the city’s water supply or fruits and vegetables in the markets reflect the longstanding tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam, they say.

“Of course it’s completely irrational,” said Daniel Perez, municipal adviser for the World Health Organization. “It’s being fed by all this racist propaganda.”

One woman at Calmette said “the opposition party” paid her 20,000 riel to pretend she was poisoned, according to Ek Kreth, chief of Municipal Judicial Police.

The scare surfaced amid anti-government marches and a two-week sit-in across from the Na­tional Assembly. A week ago, demonstrators defaced the Viet­namese monument and stomped upon its symbolic star. Sam Rainsy, president of his self-named party who spurred the sit-in, could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

Since Thursday, mobs have beaten at least four Vietnamese people to death, accusing them of poisoning people. The Khmer paper Moneaksekar, using the derogatory term for Vietnamese, reported Saturday in a story titled “Yuon start to kill Khmer again,” that the Vietnamese have tried to “brutally” poison Khmers.

A popular Phnom Penh radio station, owned by Mam Sonando, president of a small political party, on Friday aired an interview with a woman in the Toul Kok district police station who said she was Vietnamese and given poison to put in the local water.

Saturday’s Voice of Khmer Youth reported a Vietnamese girl, beaten to death near the Japanese Bridge on Friday, was carrying a packet of poison.

However, in a Friday statement, the Interior Ministry an­nounced, “The people who were accused of poisoning could not be proven to have poisonous medicine in their hands.”

The statement added, “No one in any place was poisoned by medicine or food.”

Yet patients claiming symptoms from food or water poisoning on Sunday continued to clog Calmette Hospital’s emergency room. Many patients are being given glucose and released after a few hours. “I trust my doctors; the patients have no poison,” Calmette Hos­pital Director Heng Tai Kry said Saturday.

Khieu Sopheak, calling the scare “psychological warfare,” said: “Some people are trying to spread this rumor to serve their political interests. It is very bad for Cambodia and for the other country, for the Vietnamese people.”

Ek Kreth called the rumors “psychological war in order to create trouble in the city.”

Dr Ka Sunbaunat, chairman of the Health Ministry’s mental health subcommittee, explained the history of blaming the Viet­namese for Cambodia’s ills—be they physical, mental or geographical.

In the early 1980s, he said, a similar wine poisoning generated the same talk of Vietnamese ill-will. “For a long time, there has been the story that we lost territory to the Vietnamese,” he said, and politicians today still use the fear of Vietnamese encroachment as a rhetorical tactic.

The only surefire hope of dispelling the rumors, Ka Sunbau­nat said, is to prove them wrong. He suggested submerging a small fish in tap water. “If the fish dies, there is something in the water. If the fish is still alive, it is not true that there is poison in the water.

He did this at home, and the fish lived. “The rumor will go away if you can prove it is not true.”

(Reporting by Kay Kimsong, Touch Rotha, Kimsan Chantara, Debra Boyce and Karen Coates)

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