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Cambodians plead for food as lockdown strictly enforced

NGOs rush aid to strict lockdown "red zones" and police warned over use of force

Cambodian police hold sticks as they ride motorbikes during lockdown in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- Ry Sreymao is stuck at home and unable to work because she is stuck in one of the Cambodian capital's "red zones" where lockdown enforcement is strict, and occasionally violent.

The 27-year-old garment worker said the situation was dire as her family is short of money and supplies.

"Our food is about to run out. The road is blocked and we are not allowed out," she told Nikkei Asia, adding she had already scavenged all the edible plants she could find. "I would like any help, with vegetables, with anything, we are desperate."

Ry's family is one of many in Phnom Penh pleading for food aid as the city on Friday entered its ninth day of lockdown amid an accelerating COVID-19 outbreak, responsible for more than 7,000 cases in two months. The virus has spread through more than two dozen markets and at least 120, mostly garment-producing, factories. All businesses deemed nonessential have been ordered shut.

In the hardest-hit areas, authorities have this week designated three red zones in Phnom Penh and one in the coastal city of Sihanoukville. Residents are banned from leaving their home except for emergencies.

The Ministry of Commerce has taken over supply and distribution of all food products to the zones. The zones in Phnom Penh are home to roughly 50,000 families, while in Sihanoukville there are almost 5,000 households within the boundaries, according to census data.

The operation's logistics, however, appear to be overwhelming the government's capacity. So far, more than 45,000 people have joined a government Telegram group to request emergency food aid.

Nongovernmental organizations are scrambling to deliver supplies to the areas, while residents cut off have set up secret black markets to buy and sell fresh vegetables, according to local media outlet Voice of Democracy.

As isolated residents plead for fresh food, the lockdown and inter-province travel bans have shut 17 major markets and severed supply chains. Farmers are watching vegetables spoil in their fields, VOD reported.

Police, meanwhile, have cracked down on traders that continue to operate in restricted areas, confiscating produce only to let it rot in police stations.

The Commerce Ministry has set up an online store for red zone residents to order foodstuffs, but it only stocks seven items: rice, noodles, canned fish, preserved radish, fish sauce, soy sauce and water.

A Commerce Ministry spokesman said authorities wouldn't let people starve. "The government has the capacity to feed people who need food," he said.

The government has organized several photo-opportunity type events where recipients sit in chairs and accept food packages.

The practice of presenting welfare as charity from the ruling Cambodian People's Party, rather than a public service, is common in Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen's wife runs the local Red Cross.

The patronage system sees tycoons and businesses donate millions of dollars to the government, which then disburses the aid as "gifts."

An expert on the workings of the CPP, said that, confronted with a crisis, those in charge quickly reverted to "the old ways" which, he added, were ill suited to deal with a pandemic.

"First they tried to use the state system, they tried to issue policy but it turned out that their recently-reformed system is still very fragile," said the political observer, who requested anonymity as at least 30 people have been arrested for criticizing authorities' COVID-19 response.

"After a few days, it kicked back to the old ways, the 'gifts and handouts' way. The party way is good for quick problems, the problem about COVID is that it requires a systematic and steady response -- the party system is not good at that."

The lockdown measures have also highlighted the heavy-handedness of the country's police and security forces. Hundreds of people have been arrested for violations. At least six people have been sentenced to a yearlong prison term. One of those jailed had cut police tape strung across a street.

United Nations experts have urged Cambodia's government to scrap the "grossly disproportionate" punishments, an appeal rebuffed by the country's representative to the UN.

However, things did go too far for at least two senior ministers after footage emerged of police using rattan canes and batons to threaten and beat people on the street.

Cambodia's Minister for Interior Sar Kheng, who oversees police, issued a statement telling officers to "avoid using any form of violence" in undertaking their duties.

On Facebook, Minister for Information Khieu Kanharith condemned the use of violence by authorities, calling it "wrong."

Naly Pilorge, director of human rights NGO LICADHO, said such behavior was illegal and called for authorities to adopt a more humane approach.

"The transmission and infections of this pandemic should be dealt with long term planning focusing on prevention, health plan including increasing vaccinations, food security, job creation and social protection especially for the most vulnerable sectors of society not the use of violence, imprisonment and continued patronage in such a dire situation," she said.

Even the usually stridently pro-government Khmer Times newspaper criticized what they called the "lockdown debacle" in an editorial, saying incompetence, inconsistency and poor planning had led to a "nightmarish scenario"

"The security officers basically could not differentiate between the purpose of a lockdown to running a prison," they wrote.

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