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Broken promises hard to swallow

Broken promises hard to swallow

P iem Ro District, Prey Veng - Here in one of the poorest village communes in the

country there is hunger... and there is anger.

The villagers - who

supplement their rice gruel with crabs, rats, frogs and bamboo shoots - have

been building a canal and nursery center since April on the promise they would

be fed.

That hasn't happened.

National Assembly chairman Chea Sim

told them they would get 190 tonnes of rice under a "Food For Work" program,

after he visited at the start of this year.

But to date only 50 tonnes of

rice has been given to the village, according to the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC).

Uy Sam Ath, head of CRC's Operations Department, said a written request from

Chea Sim for the other 140 tonnes of rice to be delivered was refused because

the World Food Programme (WFP) - which runs "Food For Work" projects - had

neither appraised nor approved the Piem Ro scheme.

A spokesman from Chea

Sim's office referred all comment to Prey Veng MP Chiem Yiep, who said that 150

tonnes of rice had been sent.

He said the complaints of the villagers

were not true.

The villagers are now effectively "on strike" and at least

30 families have had no rice. Their anger is being directed at the most

available target - in this case, the provincial authorities.

"They really

cheated us. We spend our time and our labor to work for them. We'll do nothing

now," said one man.

"I have no food, I ran out of rice a month ago," said

Trang Veasna, who worked for a month on the canal project. "I thought the

authorities could help as we have faced a food crisis here, but instead they

cheated us."

Uy Sam Ath said the CRC and WFP could provide emergency

relief, but not on the "personal idea" of one person.

The villagers,

meanwhile, are unaware of the administrative to-ings and fro-ings in Phnom Penh.

They just want something to eat.

"My family's survival depends on the

help of neighbors," Veasna said.

"I have three children and one grandson,

and all are sick. We have no food and no medicine."

"I make a very small

income selling firewood. We catch frogs and rats and crabs in the

fields."

Angry villagers have tried complaining but commune authorities -

themselves unaware of why the so-called "Food For Work" project has

disintegrated - refused to support a formal letter of complaint.

"We

could not send our letter of complaint without approval from our commune chief,

otherwise the governors would shout at us," said one man.

Lam Chem,

deputy chief of Prey Kandieng commune, said he didn't know why the project had

collapsed but suggested it might have been the villagers'

fault.

"Villagers have to finish the work before they get rice," he said.

"Sometimes they don't get it if they don't do the work properly."

The

villagers - in a separate complaint - also said that the local authority has

demanded a 25 percent pay-back on the 20 kilograms of rice seed that Chea Sim

gave each family.

They say Chea Sim had told them that there would be no

"interest" charged on the seed.

However, the commune chief would also not

endorse this second complaint either.

The food situation in Prey Veng is

at subsistence level, according to official figures.

Prey Veng deputy

governor Chey Syoeurn said 790 tonnes of emergency rice had been received from

the government and NGOs in 1995. He said another 5,000 tonnes were needed in

Prey Veng till the December harvest.

Syoeurn said that 70 percent of the

population face a rice deficit, a figure that has actually improved because of

help in technique and equipment from NGOs.

112 wells have been drilled by

Oxfam, and the 29,000 hectares of dry-season rice planted this year is 12,000

hectares up from last year.

However, he said: "Our irrigation system is

still poor. The people are depending still on the sky, and this is not a good

way for us anymore."

The Ministry of Agriculture has predicted a

300,000-tonne nationwide rice shortfall in 1995, and Prey Veng - which lost

about 73 percent of its crop - is one of the most badly hit.

In recent

months, villagers from Prey Veng, Kandal, Kompong Speu, Svay Rieng and Kompong

Cham have protested and begged outside the co-Prime Ministers' residences, the

Royal Palace and the National Assembly for rice and food.

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