The undertaker at Preah Putmean Bon pagoda in Phnom Penh said he stopped allowing homeless people who are near death to be dumped at his crematorium nearly three years ago.
“We [stopped] getting the alive people because crematorium is not a hospital that can treat them,” Am Phun said in an interview Tuesday.
Since then, word has spread that the pagoda in the heart of Phnom Penh no longer allows ailing homeless people to be brought to the pagoda, so the practice has stopped, he said.
Chbar Ampov pagoda in Meanchey district, on the other hand, does not turn away dying homeless people. “We don’t have the ability to treat them, we just provide them food,” Chbar Ampov pagoda monk Khun Sovarana said during an interview Tuesday. If the ailing person passes away, then the pagoda informs the authorities of the death, he said.
Chbar Ampov pagoda layman Sin Sophon said that in any given year there are at least five cases of mortally ill homeless people being delivered to the grounds of the pagoda.
Add to that, according to Chbar Ampov clergy, about five members of desperately poor families who have no other choice but to bring an ailing relative to the pagoda and that means around 10 people a year are left there to die each year.
Khun Sovarana said that he has not heard of any other pagodas in the city that have the deathly ill left at their door.
Municipality Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong said by telephone Thursday he was not aware that ailing homeless people were being left at Chbar Ampov pagoda.
“We created a social affairs center for homeless and never will we let them die along the street,” he said.
Veng Thay, director of the municipal health department, said by telephone Thursday that in any circumstance involving the deathly ill it is best to contact authorities immediately.
He added that no matter how poor an individual is, he will be treated at the hospital.
“If they cannot pay, we ask for authorization from the commune chief,” Veng Thay said. “If they cannot pay and there is no authorization from commune chief, [the hospital] can give them an exemption.”
Oftentimes hospitals will allow items such as dresses or bicycles or gold to be paid as the fee, he added.
Director-general of the municipal social affairs department Sorn Sophal said by telephone Tuesday that anyone looking to assist an ailing homeless or indigent person should contact the local authorities or his department.
“Then [I] would send my official to bring them,” he said. “They should not bring them to the crematorium compound.”
He added that Dangkao district already has a health center for old and ailing homeless and the disabled.
“One hundred sixty-six homeless have stayed in the center at Dangkao district,” he said.
Representatives of both Preah Putmean Bon and Chbar Ampov pagodas also said that they each see around 50 bodies of unidentified homeless a year being brought to their crematoriums.
Laymen and monks say that when bodies are brought to their pagoda, the authorities must document and photograph the body, then issue a letter giving the pagoda permission to cremate the body.
“When someone drops the [deceased] homeless in the pagoda the monk chief or clergy always inform the local authority,” Khun Sovarana said.
Pola Pountala, a representative of NGO Help Age International, which provides assistance to the elderly, said by telephone Tuesday that when people do not have enough money to treat ailing relatives, their last resort is often the pagoda.
“But most pagoda’s do not receive sick people,” he added.
Municipal health Director Veng Thay said that people without much money can purchase health insurance for $5 through the Sky program of NGO Groupe de Recherches et d’Echanges Technologiques. Having such insurance would be one way to guarantee needed medical care, he said.
The monks and laymen at Chbar Ampov pagoda say they would like to receive further assistance from the government or NGOs to deal with the issue.
“We are Buddhist, we always help people when they are sad, but we don’t have money to treat them,” monk Khun Sovarana said. “We are very sorry.”