Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday called for people to be more careful with what they ingest, as the death toll from rice wine poisoning in the past week rose to 20 with another death in Kratie province and two others reported dead in remote Mondolkiri province.
Speaking at a meeting on religious harmony in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen said that deaths from bad food or alcohol were entirely avoidable, despite the string of recent deaths attributed to poisoned rice wine and dog meat.
“It’s a matter we can avoid, but it has turned into something we cannot avoid,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Please, people, be careful with food…. It is only people themselves who can protect their own lives.”
“We eat to live, and if we are eating to die, there’s no need to eat,” the prime minister added.
Authorities in Kratie province have banned the production of rice wine there until they get to the bottom of the recent spate of deaths, and have already arrested one man alleged to have made bad wine that led to the deaths of eight people in the province on Wednesday.
Yet Mr. Hun Sen said that the authorities could only do so much if people were not more careful.
“It’s true that the authorities must take responsibility…but if everybody does not know how to take responsibility for themselves and turns to blame the government for having bad leadership, that’s also not correct,” he said.
Sun Buntheoun, police chief of Keo Seima district in Mondolkiri, said two people died there on Saturday and three others were treated after consuming wine that friends said was purchased in Kratie’s Snuol district, where the majority of this week’s deaths occurred.
Deputy provincial police chief Sou Sovann said that one of those being treated remains in serious condition.
“They drank together at a friend’s gathering and a while later they started to have aching stomachs,” he said. “We concluded they died because of the rice wine because they did not eat anything else.”
Sreng Sopheap, the provincial head of administration in Kratie, said another woman from the province’s Chet Borey district also died on Monday. The deaths bring the total in the past week to 20, with 18 occurring in Kratie.
Health Ministry spokesman Ly Sovann said local officials have been instructed to tell people to pour out any wine they have bought recently and to close down rice wine production operations until all government investigations into bad wine are completed.
Ny Chhon, director of the industry and handicrafts department in Kratie, which is helping to investigate the spate of poisoning, said it was hard to convince people to stop drinking the wine.
“We have always disseminated and educated people, including through the radio and leaflets, but they have a habit of drinking wine before they start their farm work,” Mr. Chhon said.
“Now we are taking strict action and are not allowing them to produce anymore,” he added. “We will allow them to produce wine again if they ask for licenses from the Industry and Handicrafts Ministry.”