In the wake of Cambodia’s celebrated involvement in this month’s Homeless World Cup, troubling attitudes persist at home. Chamkarmon district governor Prom Somkhan’s much reported statement that Phnom Penh’s homeless must be moved because they “don’t look good” merely reflects a longstanding campaign to remove the visual stain of poverty during public occasions. Last summer, for instance, saw hundreds of “homeless people, sex workers and drug users” rounded up in preparation for the funeral of party president Chea Sim, and the queen mother’s birthday celebrations, with crackdowns on various vulnerable groups continuing on a regular basis. Attempts to obfuscate these operations are minimal: officials protest only that the events were unrelated and that these clearances were in line with the long standing government policy to remove 1800 “vagrants” from the streets of the nation’s cities each year.
The ostensible objective of the street clearance program, inaugurated almost a decade ago in 2006, is to “re-educate” and re-integrate those arrested into society. However, the reality is incarceration, forced labor, or worse. Staff at the notorious Prey Speu holding facility — where 445 of 539 homeless people rounded up in 2014 found themselves deposited — report abuse, rape, and even murder taking place within its walls. Nevertheless, despite such atrocities being reported regularly within the local and international press, public opinion remains ambivalent, even supportive of the clearances. As the number of beggars arriving on Phnom Penh’s streets increases, suspicion is growing of a new and duplicitous character to panhandlers and their ilk, of farmers with land and houses seeking alms from those worse off than themselves.
Moreover, intertwined with these contemporary misgivings has been the revival throughout the city of an ancient folk tale. A centuries-old story from Prey Veng Province in the east of the country, it tells of a community that became highly successful at begging, eschewing manual labor and becoming far richer than their neighbors in the process. In cosmic recompense, the story goes, evil spirits placed a permanent curse on the seekers of immoral alms and all their progeny, so that even today their descendants, rich and poor alike, must leave their homes at least once a year to seek alms, or be struck down by lightning.
An anachronistic folk tale such as this ostensibly holds little relevance to today’s Phnom Penh; a city increasingly characterized by breakneck economic growth, unending construction and the relentless pursuit of investment. Nevertheless, it has endured not only as a story, but as a real world case study, structuring conceptions of the morality of begging from inside as well as out.
As one elderly beggar at Toul Thom Pong market explained: ‘That village is called Viel Ta Prun, in Kampong Trabek district…I have heard from old people that if they don’t beg there then they will be struck by lightning, so they have to come [to do it] whether they are rich or poor’
Viel Ta Prun does not exist, but the elderly beggar and others like her are not wrong: a village cursed by almost universal begging does exist in Kampong Trabek, alongside many others like it. There – as in the neighboring district of May Sang – the myth of the curse swirls from house to house, and village to village, as a living discourse of mutual guilt. “You must be scared of getting struck by lightning” is a daily accusation, followed by a declaration of poverty and a deflection of the barb to someone else. Almost anyone will do: within some of the district’s communities, villagers estimate that up to 90 percent of the population beg at some point during the year; who “deserves” to do so and who doesn’t is all that remains to be established.
The situation in parts of Kampong Trabek is exceptional, but so are the circumstances. Prey Veng is one of the most flood and drought hit provinces in Cambodia, a heavily rice dependent country whose ability to farm the staple has been sorely tested in recent years by the increasingly capricious effects of climate change on agriculture. At least half of the Kingdom’s ten worst recorded natural disasters have taken place in the past 25 years and the trend announced by three successive floods from the turn of the new millennium shows little sign of abating. Prey Veng has felt the worst of this process; the sums of smallholder farming no longer add up for its inhabitants.
For those young and strong enough to bear the weight of their family’s needs upon their shoulders, long, poorly paid hours of construction or garment work may provide an outlet. Even this, however, is by no means automatic. Neither the garment nor construction industries – the mainstays of the economy – are growing at a sufficient rate to absorb the nation’s post-war demographic bulge as it emerges, less so if greater numbers are driven from the villages by failing crops. Moreover, although garment workers from the poorest families regularly send back more than half of their monthly salaries, it is rarely enough to feed a family in years when the crops fail. The long standing strategy that “we all have to eat a bit less those years,” expressed by a garment worker at Canadia industrial park in Steung Meanchey, only extends so far.
Under such circumstances, each member of the household does what they must. Mothers and grandmothers, who in better times would tend their own plots or work for a daily wage on those of others, follow their urban migrant children to the city, taking advantage of their family members’ and fellow villagers’ knowledge of its geography to earn a few dollars a day in alms. The better off share a rented room with their sons, daughters and other workers; those in starker need share a curb. As Yem, the begging mother of a factory worker related: “[Usually] my youngest daughter commutes to Phnom Penh every day… to work in a garment factory… When I’m here, though, I sleep on the street at night. So does my daughter.”
The strength of the linkages binding family members’ earnings to their households in Cambodia means that such working destitution is far more common than might be expected; the boundary between begging and working far less well defined. Furthermore, the mobility suggested by Yem’s “when I’m here” is no exception. Phnom Penh’s beggars are rarely from Phnom Penh, nor do they generally expend their last energies in arriving and then settle into urban destitution. A recent study shows that over half of Phnom Penh’s beggars migrate between village and city on a regular basis, completing over eight cycles a year on average: they are migrants, doing almost the only job available to the majority of the old, disabled, or infirm.
Viewed thus, the continued prominence of Cambodia’s cursed village myth is perfectly intelligible. An increasingly large proportion of Phnom Penh’s begging community have a house and rice land in the provinces; they are not destitute in the traditional sense. When neither is capable of producing an income, however, being labeled “rich” constitutes neither comfort nor an alternative to a narrow range of options. Begging is almost always a last resort, but it is one which many of Cambodia’s farming families are being forced to consider annually. As Yem outlined, the equation is simple: “If there is rain, I stay in the village to farm; if there is none, I come here to beg instead.”
Logical calculations such as these are not the fruit of “vagrant” minds in need of “re-education” or “re-integration into society”; beggars do not risk arrest again and again in the capital because they lack a place in society, but precisely because they have one. Indeed, in most cases they beg not only for themselves but for their wives and husbands and children, to service debts incurred during the last failed harvest and keep body and soul together until the next one. For them, and millions like them, climate change has turned myth into reality.
Nevertheless, these conditions are poorly understood by the urban populace, for whom begging without complete destitution remains counterintuitive. Authority figures and public opinion alike therefore continue to demonize the itinerant pan handlers that patrol the city’s streets, subjecting them to punitive incarceration, relocation, and “re-education.” What they fail to understand in doing so is that such measures cannot succeed in halting a phenomenon sown in the parched fields of Prey Veng. As long as the government continues to turn a blind eye to climate change and its impact on ordinary farmers, village after village will receive its visit from an ancient curse.
A researcher of Cambodian mobile livelihoods since 2008, Dr. Laurie Parsons is an affiliate researcher to King’s College London and has conducted large scale projects for Save the Children, CARE International, ActionAid, the IDRC and the Royal University of Phnom Penh amongst others. His work investigates the impact of mass labor migration and ecological change on the culture and social structures of Cambodia.