I’m not sure if [the UN is] going to stand up to Hun Sen and the government.
THE United Nations World Food Programme has issued a letter of apology to Prime Minister Hun Sen over a recent news report citing a WFP assessment that Cambodia remained at risk of food insecurity.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post yesterday, was sent on December 18, just a day after the WFP warehouse logistics officer Seng Kunnaka was arrested on suspicion of incitement for sharing a printed web article with co-workers.
In the letter, WFP country director Jean-Pierre DeMargerie reassured Hun Sen that the country’s food situation was secure.
“First of all, I would like to apologise for any mistake that WFP has made about the government of Cambodia,” he wrote in the letter.
“WFP values its good relations with the government of Cambodia and expresses our regret for any act or statement that has influenced this good relationship. WFP does not consider the situation of food security in Cambodia to be at an alarming level.... WFP considers Cambodia as a country with a food surplus,” DeMargerie added.
But as recently as September, WFP Communications Officer Rosaleen Martin told The Post that the food security situation for millions in Cambodia was “precarious.”
“WFP remains concerned that there are close to 2 million Cambodians living in a situation of chronic food insecurity (which can easily rise to close to 3 million during the lean season) and are in [a] very precarious situation with limited capacity to cope with any new shocks such as floods, droughts, and price fluctuations,” she said.
Yesterday, Martin said WFP was “working hard in supporting efforts to improve the food security of the remaining 18 percent” of Cambodians who live below the food poverty line.
In a speech in Battambang province on December 9, Hun Sen lashed out a media report that allegedly cited the WFP as saying that Cambodia remained vulnerable to food insecurity. He then ordered the Minister of Economy and Finance, Keat Chhon, to ask WFP to clarify the issue.
“Please ask [WFP] if they said it like that, and just take back our rice and stop giving it to them,” Hun Sen said. Cambodia has about 8 million tonnes of rice, with 3.7 million tonnes of rice surplus for export, he said.
The letter from DeMargerie stated that the government had provided 2,000 tonnes of rice and US$467,000 to the WFP for distribution this year, and more than $5 million in rice and money since 2007. DeMargerie met Keat Chhon on December 13 to discuss the issue.
The WFP was reluctant yesterday to comment on the issue of its jailed staffer Seng Kunnaka, but said the situation was being monitored by the WFP and the UN. Seng Kunnaka was arrested a week ago and sentenced to six months jail on incitement charges in a rapid-fire trial two days later.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the UN had not spoken out about Seng Kunnaka because they were “protecting their presence” in Cambodia.
He said they appeared “willing to compromise their principles and probably the fate of one of their own employees” in order to remain in-country.
“I’m not sure if they’re going to stand up to Hun Sen and the government,” Ou Virak said. “I’m not sure they have the principles.”
The WFP insisted yesterday that the letter to Hun Sen and the arrest of its staffer were “separate and unrelated”.
Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, said he was “trying to obtain more information from all sides, including a copy of the judgment on this case”.
In a statement yesterday, Human Rights Watch said Seng Kunnaka’s swift conviction was part of a pattern of government suppression of peaceful free speech cemented by the new Penal Code.
“During the last two years, more than 10 critics of the government, including journalists and opposition party activists, have been prosecuted for criminal defamation and disinformation based on complaints by government and military officials under the former penal code,” HRW said.
“Cambodia’s new Penal Code should have put an end to abusive practices, not encouraged new ones,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in the statement.
HRW called on the government to amend the code to ensure it protects peaceful forms of expression.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan balked at calls to revise the Penal Code, calling it the “wrong approach”, and dismissed the criticisms of rights groups as “too personal”.
He said the new Penal Code defended free speech, but set out clear limits for what could be said. The article that Seng Kunnaka printed and shared posed a threat to the “personal security [of government officials] and national stability” of Cambodia, he said.
“He deserves to be in jail,” Phay Siphan said of Seng Kunnaka. “Do you want to be in jail too? If you want to be in jail, do like him, and we’ll put you in jail right away.”