Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday said he had raised more than U.S. $6 million from “donors” to assist hundreds of thousands of families affected by flooding, prompting NGOs to question the origin of the aid and the lack of transparency surrounding how it will be distributed.
Hun Sen’s comments came as a disaster management official said the number of deaths in Cambodia caused by storm-triggered floods had risen to 13, while the country continues to grapple with overflow that has destroyed agriculture and critical infrastructure nationwide.
Speaking during a visit with victims of flooding, Hun Sen said the government had so far distributed around U.S. $800,000 of the U.S. $6 million raised, while the remainder will go towards flood relief and infrastructure repairs.
The prime minister thanked “rich people,” who he said had provided funds unprompted by the government.
“This is Cambodian pride—we have a united spirit, except for those who make statements from outside of the country,” he said, in a not-so-veiled reference to leaders of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who are living in self-imposed exile to avoid what they say are politically motivated charges and convictions.
“We don’t distinguish between political affiliations—people of all parties are provided with security and are free from starvation. We don’t wait [to help them] until they vote for the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] CPP. We don’t even know who voted for the CPP. Our priority is the safety of the people, without discrimination.”
Authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha in September 2017 and the Supreme Court banned his party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government two months later. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Hun Sen’s comments prompted questions from NGOs who say the donation process and how aid will be distributed lack oversight.
Reports said that at least one of the donors is Try Pheap, a business tycoon with close ties to Hun Sen, while the deputy president of the National Committee for Disaster Management is Kun Kim, a former senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). Both men were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in December for corruption.
National Committee for Disaster Management spokesperson Khun Sokha told RFA that the committee does not know the plan for distributing donations yet but said authorities will provide aid to all victims without favor.
“We never hide any information about humanitarian aid, and we don’t discriminate against anyone,” he said. “The process will be transparent.”
Khun Sokha said Hun Sen had so far sent U.S. $100,000 to five different provinces each, without specifying which ones.
Pech Pisey, director of Transparency International Cambodia, told RFA that the government must put measures in place to ensure aid is distributed to all people, without regard to ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation.
“This small budget needs to be spent wisely to help the victims,” he said.
Pech Pisey said that because the aid comes from personal donations, it is difficult for nongovernmental organizations to evaluate its origin and how it is distributed.
“We don’t know anything about the aid management,” he said. “There has been no audit, so the public is suspicious.”
Cambodia suffers from a “firmly rooted system of patronage,” he said, in which the interests of the public are exploited for personal benefit.
“We see collusion between Okhna [business tycoons] and senior government officials,” he said.
“They exchange benefits and the country continues to deal with this problem.”
San Chey, director of the Cambodia-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said people should not praise those who have a bad history of abusing the donation system as part of a bid to whitewash past criminal activities.
“It doesn’t matter how much money they donate to help the people,” he said.
“They simply turn around and use the donations in exchange for business opportunities that impact public interest.”
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan could not be reached for comment on details of the donations and plans to distribute them.
Khun Sokha told RFA Thursday that the death toll from flooding rose by two from a day earlier, while 19 of Cambodia’s 25 provinces remained inundated—the hardest hit of which are Pursat, Battambang, Pailin, and Banteay Meanchey provinces, as well as Phnom Penh Municipality’s Dangkao district.
As of Thursday, he said, some 400,000 households have been affected, while 400 schools have been closed, 131,000 hectares of crops have been flooded, and 6,000 hectares of crops have been destroyed. Floodwaters have also knocked out an unspecified number of bridges and roads in rural areas.
Authorities have warned of an increased risk of infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, as well as food poisoning and snake bites.
Disaster officials are continuing efforts to assist those in need, Khun Sokha said.
At least two more tropical storms are expected to hit Cambodia in coming days.
A villager from Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district named Vong Saraim told RFA that his home is flooded, and his family was forced to evacuate two days ago.
Many evacuees sheltering on higher ground are facing shortages of food and clean water, while additionally struggling with health issues including skin diseases, he said, adding that he had never seen such severe flooding in the area.
“We haven’t received any aid and we don’t have enough rice or other food,” he said.
Another villager from Battambang, Hong Chheang Huong, said floodwaters in his region are finally receding and that authorities have distributed food to residents.
Yong Kim Eng, the president of local NGO People's Centre for Development and Peace, blamed the filling in of natural lakes for development projects as a major contributing factor to the flooding. He said that in Phnom Penh there is no longer anywhere to release floodwaters.
“Only some developers took into consideration irrigation systems and how to release floodwaters,” he said.
“The government should conduct a study on flooding and review standards for future developments to avoid it.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.