“DACH bay” is a Khmer slang meaning a “loss of income”, that could also be literally translated to «deprived of rice”, which alludes to starvation. However, civil society organisation (CSO) officials have independently confirmed the government’s prior assertions that there are no cases of starvation in Phnom Penh’s red zones because the government and the municipal authorities, as well as some CSOs themselves, continue to provide food assistance to people living in the highly restricted areas.
The municipal hall has so far distributed food to nearly 200,000 families in the red zones to support them.
Hon Seiha, a resident of Por Sen Chey district’s Trapaing Thloeng commune, already received some donations from the authorities on April 28 in the form of rice, canned sardines, fish sauce, soy sauce and noodles to feed his family for now.
"My landlord wrote down the names of those of us who rented the rooms and sent our names to the village chief so that the authorities could distribute the food to us," Seiha told The Post on May 2.
Seiha said the food would feed his family of four for about a month, but he hoped that the authorities would soon reopen the roads and that the Covid-19 situation would soon subside.
Seng Rath, another resident who lives in the red zone of Meanchey district, also said she received food assistance on May 1 after her landlord included her name along with other tenants’ and sent to the village chief.
"I registered about a month ago and just received food yesterday. I do not know why, but I heard that they distributed it to those who are most in need first and then to us," Rath said.
She added that in the area where she lives, some people had not yet received their food donations because their landlord didn’t pay much attention to list the names of his tenants for the village or commune chief.
Pich Sophoeun, a 40-year-old woman residing in a rented room in Stung Meanchey II commune’s Damnak Thom 4 village in Meanchey district who had just recovered from Covid-19 and finished her 14-day quarantine, told The Post that she had not received any assistance from the authorities before, during or after her sickness.
"My landlord listed our names, but so far no one has brought us anything and my landlord isn’t going to spend much time on this to help us,” Sophoeun said.
"When I asked my landlord, I was told to contact the village chief myself. My landlord is not helpful to tenants who are trying to get this food assistance,” she added.
Sophoeun asked the authorities to provide food to her family because she was a Covid-19 patient and currently has no job and no income at all.
Even though Sophoeun has no income and receives food from the authorities, she still has a small amount of savings and her niece has been providing her with food almost every day.
"The remaining rice can be cooked for about two more days, and my niece always buys me some groceries like meat, too. It eased my burdens as well when my husband and son were both hospitalised for Covid-19 treatment," she said.
She said she may withdraw money reserved for her room rental to buy rice first as she has no choice and expects her landlord to understand her inability to pay for now during this crisis period.
Another resident, who asked not to be named and who lived across from the Trapeang Thleung market – a red zone area in Dangkor district – said he had not yet received his food donations. He said only factory workers who lived in nearby rented rooms had received it.
“They got it because the village chief came and got their names registered, but not for every household. For me, I do not want gifts. It does not have serious impacts on me even though I live in a red zone I don’t need donations,” he said.
He said he works from home and is receiving his regular salary and the only annoying thing about the situation was the inability to travel outsides of the area.
Authorities’ Response and landlords’ assistance
Domnak Thom 4 village chief Va Pha told The Post that so far 70 to 80 per cent of the people in his village had received food, and he is also going to continue distributing food to those who have not yet received any.
"The number of families who have already received food is now at 1,174 and they are all living in rented rooms. Today I will start distributing food to those who have not received anything,” he said.
Pha confirmed that if the landlords or their representative contacted the village or commune, then village officials will go down to distribute food.
He acknowledges that some people have not yet received their food assistance as sometimes he does not receive information from the landlords on time or in full, and all food assistance distribution must have a registered recipient.
Regarding the listing of tenants in rented houses, Ry Satyanika, who has nine rooms and 13 tenants living in Stung Meanchey II commune, told The Post on May 2 that she paid attention and was careful in helping her tenants by listing all of their names and send them to the village chief so that they can receive food donations.
"All nine of my tenants have already received their food donations. The authorities came to get the data of the needy people at their rented rooms, so I helped them until they got their packages from the authorities yesterday," she said.
Satyanika confirmed that the landlord had to help him in order to receive his food donation because the authorities were using the names of the landlords as the delivery recipients and then transporting the food to those people.
"The village chief came to meet with the landlord directly in order to get the exact number of rooms. And whether or not the tenants would get donations also depends on the assistance from the landlord,” she said.
Satyanika says he is not charging rental fees from his tenants during this difficult time.
Mechanisms for receiving donations, distributing aid, providing emergency assistance and engaging with CSOs
Phnom Penh municipal governor Khuong Sreng said that after the lockdown of some areas the government plans to provide food relief such as rice, noodle and basic food needs so that people could survive.
"It is a point of pride for Phnom Penh that so far no one has died of hunger," Sreng said.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration has rejected allegations that the mechanisms for receiving donations, distributing aid and providing emergency assistance are discriminatory because these mechanisms were made with transparency and in line with the government’s guidelines.
The municipal administration also called for patience from donors who could not distribute directly to the affected people due to the high risk of contracting Covid-19 there.
The municipal administration will continue to distribute aid to targeted groups of people who are in need of emergency food.
At the same time, Sreng expressed his disappointment that some foreign and local media outlets had misleadingly reported that municipal hall authorities prevented them from distributing the food relief for other reason than sanitary issues.
According to the municipal governor, some local authorities have not yet distributed the food donations to their people. In Phnom Penh they will distribute aid to up to 400,000 families, but so far there are only nearly 200,000 families who have received it.
"The first target, we provided to those who live in the red zones, and mostly [unemployed] workers who need food. As soon as we get a call from people in need of food, the authorities will go down to the location and provide immediate assistance," he said.
Regarding CSOs’ donation activities to assist with the crisis, the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) has provided food to workers trapped in the red zone. So far CENTRAL has provided meals to 1,511 people living in 605 rented rooms, according to executive director Moeun Tola.
View from associations and unions
Fa Saly, president of the National Trade Union Confederation, told The Post he did not believe that people in the red zones or other locked down areas are facing actual starvation because of the loss of income.
"As a Cambodian citizen, I believe that the Cambodian people still have a sense of solidarity and would not leave any people starving to death. We will all definitely help each other to the best of our ability," he said.
“I am a Cambodian. I have never seen our citizens refusing to help the needy. Neighbours are always helping each other. There is no need to wait for the government to come and help,” he said.
Saly said that until now, he had not received any information from workers about people lacking food. Each village or commune has assigned a specific representative to distribute donations to them.
"At first, it was difficult and the situation was serious, but it has now improved with help from donors and the authorities have been very busy trying to provide food," he said.
Saly was prepared to provide food to the workers and the poorest people, but so far no requests have been made to him because the government has provided them with enough assistance.
"There is no such case where people have had nothing to eat or no food at home. It’s just a question of more or less,” he added.
The lockdown is expected to end by May 6. But several red zones will remain to contain the spread. It’s expected that more complaints and fake news about starvation will emerge, but so far fact-checking has proven starvation, or “dach bay”, to be hyperbolic or lost in translation.