ALONG the main roads in Phnom Penh, especially near the Russian Market and the Central Market, you will always see beggars and street people, both young and old, asking passers-by for money.
If you take cash from your pocket and give it to one beggar, a crowd of beggars will immediately surround you.
In that situation, what do you do? Do you give all of them money, or simply ignore them?
This is a very difficult question, and many people have no answer to it.
San Pharen, the project manager of World Vision Cambodia, says: “Giving alms to beggars or the needy is not a bad thing; it’s an act of sharing and helping others. It is, however, harmful to give alms to beggars in certain situations.”
Sharing comes naturally to Cambodians, but some people believe it can be a bad thing for beggars.
Figures from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation show that in 2009, there were about 12,000 orphans and street children in the Kingdom.
But the problem is not only street children; many older people sleep beside the roads and outside pagodas. During Pchom Ben, you will see beggars of all ages asking for money or food near stupas and monasteries.
I would never suggest that indigent people should not come from the provinces to beg, but I do wonder why they have to do it.
At the Tuol Tom Poung pagoda at the first day of Pchom Ben, I saw many beggars and street children in the pagoda yard asking for money.
I wondered what they would do with the money people gave them: would they buy drugs or glue to sniff, or food to fill their stomachs?
On the eighth day of Pchom Ben, I went to the Langka pagoda and talked to beggars who go back and forth between Prey Veng province and Phnom Penh every 10 days or so.
Chum Sokun, 67, one of about 20 beggars at the Langka pagoda, said he came from Kompong Trobeak district to ask for money, food and “other stuff”.
“I prefer money to food, because if I have money I can do what I want to. I can earn 10,000 riel a day from begging,” Chum Sokun said.
Long Sarath, chief of security at the Langka pagoda, said most of the beggars came from Prey Veng, Svay Reing and Kompong Speu provinces.
He said beggars came to pagodas during ceremonies because Cambodian people were Buddhist and believed they had to be generous to those less fortunate, so they gave indigent people money or food.
On August 31, AKP news reported that the poverty rate in Cambodia had dropped to 25.8 per cent.
Six years earlier, it had stood at 35.1 per cent.
World Bank country head Annette Dixon told Voice of America radio last year the Cambodian government should be congratulated on the progress it had made in reducing social disadvantage, but warned that four million people – one-third of the nation’s population – were still living in poverty.
Sam Rainsy party activist Mou Sokhour says our government has to increase spending in the education and social sectors.
The government has to figure out which rural areas the beggars come from, then develop those areas in order to reduce poverty.
I strongly hope that in the coming years, I will not see more and more beggars and street people walking and sleeping along the roads.
But I believe the Cambodian people and the government can co-operate to improve beggars’ lives so they no longer have to ask for alms.