Cambodia’s government has bought 3,000 coffins made in Thailand to prepare for COVID-19 deaths, a move that has angered residents who say Prime Minister Hun Sen should be more concerned with spending resources to help the living, sources in the country told RFA.
Cambodia was nearly untouched by the coronavirus for all of 2020, reporting daily cases of zero or single digits until it broke into the double digits in late February this year. From then, average cases rose into the high triple digits by early May. Now Cambodia is averaging almost 1,000 new cases per day.
Cambodia has confirmed more than 55,000 cases and 748 deaths, nearly 500 of which occurred in the past month.
The government’s preemptive purchase of the coffins was revealed Tuesday by Banteay Meanchey Deputy Governor Ngor Menchruon and reported in local media.
But sources told RFA that the government should have at least looked for domestic producers and buying them from abroad shows their incompetence.
“Now that our people have food shortages, the government should provide us with food and money, not waste it to buy thousands of coffins from another country to be prepared for our deaths,” Pov Na, a resident in the western province of Battambang, told RFA.
“People cannot work, and we need help, and the government should be solving our immediate problems. If they want coffins, they should make them domestically using confiscated wood,” she said, referring to wood taken from operations that illegally harvest timber from protected forest areas.
“They cannot even build their own coffins? How come they are leading the country?” Pov Na said.
In Art, a trader from Banteay Meanchey province, told RFA that people today are afraid of contracting COVID-19 and need the government’s help to provide healthcare, education, food and livelihoods.
In a climate where so many live in poverty under crippling debt, the government should not spend money on Thai coffins, he said.
“Living people should be the priority. Why are they focusing on coffins? The priority should be on educating the people on COVID-19 prevention measures. The living have no food to eat and they owe so much to the banks. That is what the authorities should pay attention to,” said In Art.
RFA attempted to reach Ministry of Health spokesperson O Vandin, Ministry of Economy and Finance spokesman Meas Sok Sen San and Banteay Meanchey Deputy Governor Ngor Menchruon for comment on Tuesday but calls to all three went unanswered.
Seng Somony, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Cults and Religions, told RFA he could not comment on the order for 3,000 coffins from Thailand, but he defended the Khmer practice of preparing coffins in advance, sometimes before the people they are intended for have died.
“The Khmer people have a belief that if children prepare a mature-wood coffin for their parents, those children earn merit for their good virtues,” Seng Somony said.
“This preparation is a deed of good virtue, so don’t be confused. Some people, while they are still living, even build a stupa for their own bodies or ashes. There is a scripture saying that those who build a stupa or coffin to prepare for their own death will have long lives,” he said.
Pech Pisey, President of the Cambodia office of Transparency International, told RFA that he supported the purchase, but his organization also understands why people have complaints.
“Based on the number of deaths we have now, I don’t think we are short on coffins,” he said.
“If too many people die though, yes we should be ordering them from abroad, but if we could have produced these domestically, we should have ordered them from within the country,” said Pech Pisey.