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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vet benefits nothing to sing about

Vet benefits nothing to sing about

AS a soldier, Suoen Soth was certain he would stay out of harm's way. Apart from

the tattoos across his chest and the amulet around his waist, he had consulted a

kru (teacher) about how to avoid injury and death.

"Whatever you do, do not eat elephant meat" the kru advised him after consulting

the spirits. "If you eat elephant meat, you will lose your protection."

The advice proved reliable. Despite participating in at least ten battles, Suoen

Soth survived without so much as a scratch.

"But one day at Tatom, in Siem Reap province, my friends shot an elephant,"

he said. "I was so hungry, I ate some of the meat. The next day I stepped on

a land mine.

"It was terrible. At first, I could hear and feel nothing, but then the pain

came. I hurt all over - even my right foot hurt, although it was no longer there.

"After the amputation, I realized I was going to suffer my whole life. I felt

pity for my wife and children because I realized I would never be able to support

them well, and I cursed the Chinese and the Soviet Union for making land-mines.

"I thought it would be better for me if I was dead. I began to think about how

to kill myself," Soth added.

Ever since that day in 1984, Soth's life has been a struggle for survival.

His thoughts often return to the option of suicide. One of his three children died

of disease and malnutrition. As a handicapped mine victim, he is unable to work and

is all but ostracized by his community at Oudong in Kompong Speu.

"The chief of my village gave rice to people who would help build a road but

I could not work as well as the others, so I got less rice.

"Almost everyone can find work, but not me. I wanted to help build a school,

but the villagers wouldn't let me because I have only one leg. I survive by planting

lemon grass and sweet potatoes.

"But it's very difficult. I feel rejected and frustrated," he said.

As a wounded veteran, Soth is entitled to a monthly allowance of around 30,000 riel

($12) a month from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Veterans Affairs (SALVA).

But he must spend about 15,000 riel ($6) for the round trip to Kompong Speu town

and home again, in order to collect his money. And more often than not, the money

is not there.

During the 11 months from November 1994, according to Soth, he received nothing and

is still waiting for back pay. From October 1995 until the beginning of this year,

he received only some of his monthly allowance.

In January, to save money on the journey to Kompong Speu, he asked SALVA officials

at Kompong Speu for a three-month advance.

"They said OK but they took about 35,000 riel ($14) for putting the money up-front.

They said I could have the money for a whole year, but that if I took it, they wanted

half as a commission," Soth said.

He is not alone in his frustration with the system. Four amputees who spoke to the

Post at Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center, said they were wounded in action but

had never received a pension.

Leng Srouch, 26, who said he stepped on a land mine in Kampot in 1988, said he was

entitled to a pension of 60,000 riels ($24) a month, but had to sell his pension

booklet to get some money quickly.

"Eight years ago, I sold my booklet for 300,000 riel ($115) because my parents

and I were sick and we needed money. Now I cannot get my pension booklet back because

the person who bought it from me lives in another part of Kampot," he said.

Under-secretary of state for SALVA Hun Ly Huot, an ex-Brigadier General in the Royal

Sihanoukist Army, said that despite his Ministry's best efforts, the practice of

hoarding disabled vets' pension booklets is still common in Cambodia.

He said that many veterans find themselves in such dire straits, they have little

option but to sell access to their benefits.

The difficulty in picking out those who take advantage of the system is the fact

that veterans are able to send someone else to collect their monthly disbursements.

"Some abusers will buy as many as 100 pension booklets," Huot said. "It

is hard to identify genuine claimants from impostors, because the abusers can say

they were sent by a disabled friend who is too sick to collect his [money]...

Back at Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center, Ky Kimchea and Sea Tina both said they

were policemen from Kompong Thom who were still entitled to draw their monthly government

salary of 35,000 riels ($13).

But they said they had not bothered to claim the money because they would have to

pay a middleman 300,000 riel each to have their files transferred to SALVA.

But Hun Ly Huot dismisses any allegation of corruption.

"The Ministries of Defense and Interior are first responsible for the complete

recovery of veterans from injuries they have sustained in the line-of-duty,"

he said.

"Once they have been rehabilitated, then Defense and Interior automatically

send their dossiers to us."

According to Huot, his Ministry is responsible for nearly 18,000 veterans who are

eligible for pension payments. He is the first to admit that his mission is an especially

daunting one.

"The pension budget we have been allocated is far from sufficient," he

said, pointing to a table of figures pinned to the wall next to a giant map of Cambodia.

The number 1,309,092,115 denotes the current monthly outlay in riels which has been

budgeted nationally for disabled veterans.

By western standards, it is a pittance - just over half a million dollars, or about

$30 per person, depending on the extent of disability.

Even then, not all soldiers injured in Cambodia's long history of war are eligible

for pensions.

At Kien Khleang, Ngim Phec, 43, related how in 1971, at the age of 18, she was cut-down

by a bullet fired from an AK-47, when fighting for then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk's

government-in-exile.

She said she had never received a penny for her disability.

Such pensions, as it turns out, are reserved only for those veterans who served in

the armies of the country's various factions since 1979, a point on which Huot withholds

comment.

Huot holds an honorary doctorate in the pain and horrors of war.

His dead man's hands are a testimony to that. They are large in proportion to his

squat frame. Their backs bare scars which seem to have been caused by scalds. The

fingers are flat and crooked, the nails black-and-blue at the tips.

These smashed, sallow-looking hands belong to a person who has known death face-on,

but has come back to the realm of the living.

This point is driven home as the interview draws to a close. When Huot stands to

say good-bye, the enormity and complexity of disability in Cambodia is made all the

more palpable.

The ex-Brigadier General has no legs. Huot's real ones were blown off somewhere along

the Thai border in 1993, as he tried to pave the road to free and fair elections

in a Cambodia in search of peace.

(Additional reporting: Ky Sok Lim)

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