It was the bloodiest battle since Waterloo.
Yet the carnage wrought 150 years ago by the Italian and French troops, fighting under Napoleon III, and the forces of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, was overshadowed by its aftermath.
While 30,000 had died on the battlefield, more than 40,000 succumbed to their injuries in the days following the fighting.
The wounded and maimed sought aid in the northern Italian town of Castiglione—and received it, although the inhabitants were overwhelmed by the task.
“Siamo tutti fratelli”—We are all brothers, the residents of the town said to both friends and foes.
It was this altruism that inspired Jean Henry Dunant, a Swiss philanthropist, to found what is now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, one of the world’s largest and most respected networks of humanitarian aid. Much has happened since its inception.
National Red Cross and Crescent societies have been created in almost every country in the world, all adhering to the movement’s original principle: We are all one.
The Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) states on its website: “In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”
While political neutrality is one of seven fundamental principles of the Red Cross, the local chapter is in the spotlight following a recent speech by CRC President Bun Rany, wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Last weekend, during a CRC event in Pailin province, where Ms. Rany was distributing aid to flood victims, she addressed hundreds of people in a speech denouncing the CNRP, which won 55 seats in parliament during the July national election.
Ms. Rany appeared to draw a direct link between aid during times of disaster and her husband’s long-ruling CPP, saying that only the ruling party could be relied upon to deliver aid to those in need.
“When there are floods or any other incidents, fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters have seen that there is no other party coming to help you here…there is only the CPP because all civil servants are CPP,” Ms. Rany said.
Kem Ly, an independent political analyst, said the CRC is now a highly politicized movement in Cambodia, seen as being closely allied with Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP, which precludes it from being seen as neutral or impartial.
“How do they fulfill their principles of impartiality and neutrality? All the high-ranking members [of the CRC] are the wives of government officials…all belong to the CPP. They have always been politically biased…,” Mr. Ly said.
“But, I think what Bun Rany said [in her speech] has taken it to a new level,” he said.
Putting neutrality to one side, the CRC’s ties to the CPP have enabled the organization to collect generous donations from those with eyes on the political expediency of donating generously, Mr. Ly said.
During World Red Cross Day earlier this year, the CRC received $14 million in donations, which were hand-delivered to Ms. Rany.
“Because the Cambodian Red Cross is political, and [seen as an] entity of the CPP,” they receive generous donations, Mr. Ly said.
The most generous donation during World Red Cross day in April was $3 million from the Booyoung Group—a Korean development company that had just broken ground on a new satellite city in Sen Sok district.
In past years, the CRC has raised between $4 million and $8 million during the daylong event.
Several CRC officials contacted this week declined to comment.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said last week that Ms. Rany’s stinging comments on behalf of the government were her own private views, and did not interfere with her work or that of the CRC.
Ms. Rany’s recent verbal attack on the CNRP was not the first time the CRC has been embroiled in controversy.
In 2004, when hundreds of ethnic minority hilltribe people, known as Montagnards, fled from repression and protests in Vietnam and sought asylum in Cambodia, which the government at first did not want to recognize, the CRC’s absence in helping them was widely criticized.
Sia Phearum, secretary director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the CRC has also been noticeably absent in assisting those who have been evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh over the past decade.
“They [the CRC] think that those people [evictees] are always protesting against the CPP and the ruling party accuses them of being followers [of the opposition]…and then the Red Cross has no plan to help them,” Mr. Phearum said.
Though tens of thousands have been forcibly evicted in the past decade, the only CRC donation to victims of evictions that Mr. Phearum could think of was one tent and several bags of rice given by Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong to the about 100 holdout families at the Borei Keila community earlier this year.
“In the Borei Keila case, they provided donations after two years,” Mr. Phearum said, noting that the donation came after the July 28 national election, in which the CPP lost two seats in Phnom Penh to the CNRP, making the opposition the stronger party.
Sin Somuny, executive director of Medicam, an umbrella group of health NGOs, said the CRC’s partisanship has deepened in recent years, as have donations from the rich and powerful.
The CRC has become more political since Ms. Rany succeeded Princess Norodom Marie Ranariddh, the former wife of former First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, he said.
Andrea Acerbis, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Cambodia office, said he could not comment on the impartiality of the CRC, though private discussions do take place between the movements in different countries.
“The ICRC might discuss issues on a peer to peer basis and that’s confidential,” Ms. Acerbis said.
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