Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, celebrating his 78th birthday Tuesday, said devastating floods had put a damper on the event and appealed for more international aid for victims.
"Birthdays are a traditionally happy occasion, but this year I am filled with sadness at the suffering of more than two million of my people," he said in a message published in the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
"Our people who already suffered so much in this country were suddenly hit again by a torrent of unexpected floods," he said, a reference to three decades of civil war which ended only in 1998 with the fizzling out of the Khmer Rouge insurgency.
King Sihanouk appealed to the international donor community for more aid to feed the hundreds of thousands who had lost homes and property in the floods which the Red Cross has said are the worst to sweep down the Mekong River basin into Cambodia and Vietnam in more than a generation.
"In principle I believe that the best kind of assistance to be given to Cambodia is not 'fish to eat' but 'teaching us how to fish,' so we can be self-sustaining," he said.
"During this emergency, however, the fish may be the best assistance for the survival of all these innocent victims."
Meanwhile, in an indication the government believes the worst may be over for the country, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he was ending a personal 48-day campaign in which he traveled to 43 towns and villages in 13 provinces handing out food and emergency relief.
He said he would still continue to visit victims of the floods -- which he said had affected nearly 3.5 million Cambodians out of a population of 11.4 million -- but was changing his focus to supplying farmers with rice seed for their next crop.
"I would like to state that my 48-day campaign ends today ... the people who directly received donations from me and my teams number 224,721 families," he said at a flood relief donation ceremony in the Western province of Kompong Speu.
"I would like to make it clear this is not the end to government flood relief efforts and I will be back to give rice seed."
Heavy rains overnight and in the afternoon left the central part of Phnom Penh surrounding the royal palace submerged to bonnet level on the few cars and trucks which braved the inundation.
Soggy flags, banners and strings of lights put up to decorate the palace ahead of an evening fireworks display on the Tonle Sap river hung limp in the downpour.
Estimated damage from the floods which began here in July has stretched to more than 100 million dollars, and 347 people, mainly in rural rice-growing areas, have lost their lives.
The ageing king has been central to Cambodian life since leading the nation to independence from France half a century ago.
King Sihanouk is suffering from a variety of ailments, including diabetes and colon cancer. He recently returned from his residence in Beijing, where he goes regularly for rest and medical treatment -- PHNOM PENH (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)