ESPERATION of rural poor facing ruin by flooding snapped at Stung Chveng village
last Saturday night, when village chief Pou Heng was "chopped" to death
as he slept.
Heng, 43, had angered local villagers by compiling two lists of names of people wanting
aid and rice to see them through the floods, but one of the lists consisted only
of his own relatives who got preferential treatment.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen alluded to the murder the next day, Oct 14, saying
he heard about an "incident" and asking people not to repeat such a thing.
Any problem with aid was not the fault of village chiefs, he said. The Government
was doing what it could to help.
Two witnesses from Stung Chveng village - maybe 60 kms from the capital, a Khmer
Rouge "resting place" and now only accessible by boat - confirmed the attack
by a group of villagers angry at the way Heng had satisfied the security of his own
family and relatives.
Khean Sophal, 21, and Sok Chea, 28, confirmed that feelings had been running high
at the village because of the discrepancy in the lists.
Others seeking help from authorities in the capital - and the Palace, various ministries
and leaders' houses have been busy fielding requests throughout the last fortnight,
from groups coming from many different provinces - say news has been heard of other
village chiefs afraid to sleep in their houses for fear of similar retribution.
International aid has come in for those affected by the freak floods, the worst since
1978. Japan and the United States gave more than $100,000, Australia $450,000 - most
of that to the World Food Program - and $75,000 from Save the Children Australia.
Cambodian Red Cross director Uy Samath told Reuters news agency that the flooding,
which has claimed 25 lives, had decreased "and the situation now is better everywhere."
However, at press time Svay Rieng township on the eastern border with Vietnam was
still underwater - the first time in memory that has happened - and around 10,000
people had been displaced from their homes.
The road from Phnom Penh to Neak Leoung had been breached, or nearly breached, in
eight places, and authorities had sandbagged the spots to prevent flooding from topping
and eroding the main highway to Vietnam.
Water marks indicated the flood had receded some 40 centimeters, but thousands of
villagers were camped along the national highway. Paddies on both sides of the road
were still completely flooded.
Downtown Svay Rieng was inundated under a meter of water. In the town center there
were more boats and canoes than motor vehicles. A make-shift market had been set
up on the outskirts of town because the main one was unusable.
Altogether, on Route 1 to Vietnam, a rough calculation indicated between 20,000 and
30,000 farmers and perhaps an equal number of cattle were camping on the roadside.
Flying back from Ho Chi Minh City one could see gigantic swaths of countryside under
water. Some villages looked totally isolated with the nearest dry land three or four
kilometers away. The normal course of the Mekong could only be discerned by trees
on higher embankments sticking out of the water. Otherwise flood waters spread on
both sides of the Mekong and Bassac south of Phnom Penh for 15 to 20 kilometers.
Along Rouge 6 to Kompong Cham - a road still broken and impassable - hundreds of
people are still living in temporary bamboo shelters, along with their cows.
Food prices had increased sharply, despite Hun Sen's pleas for restraint in market
forces, and people were still pointing toward the middle of huge lakes explaining
where their chili crop, or rice paddy, or vegetable crop would normally be.
York Chreung, 65, said "the flood comes every year during the rainy season,
but it's just very bad this year and has not gone away quickly.
"It has covered all the villagers' crops, especially the rice. If the government
helped us dig streams or ponds, or provided us with pump machines, the flood [like
this] could come every year and we wouldn't have to worry about it.
"Last dry season we could not work on the farm because of a lack of water. We're
not lazy people, we try to work hard but nature and the free market doesn't help
Many villagers knew from experience that when the waters receded, the land would
be very fertile, "but even if the flood brings good fertilizer, we still find
it hard to work because we have no seed or irrigation," Chreung said.
Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, many of those seeking help from authorities were upset at
being turned away for help. People interviewed by the Post said they had been refused
by guards at the Palace and at Ranariddh's house "because [the visit] had not
been organized by the village authorities, but by yourselves."
The people complained of having had to spend 20,000 riel to come to Phnom Penh and
had no money to get home, no place to sleep in the capital, and little to return