Suffer the little children

“Suffer the little children” is a post on Rupert Winchester’s blog The Mighty Penh. He talks about orphans in general (in the Cambodian context of course) and specifically about a trip he’s taking around Cambodia for a charity he works for (he’s doing the annual reports for donors who sponsor individual kids). Very interesting stuff. I’ll quote it in full, with Rupert’s permission, as it’s not very long.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling around Cambodia talking to orphans, for the annual sponsorship reports sent to people who stump up a small monthly amount of cash via the charity I work for, to help pay for a child’s basic needs: rice, soap, cooking oil, salt, washing powder, education and so forth.

Oddly, most of the children aren’t actually orphans: their parents have given them up as they’re too poor to look after them. Which makes my mind boggle a bit. The children range in age for about six to 19. Some of them are very disabled and will never live an independent life; others are bright and motivated and bursting with life and enthusiasm, waiting to get out into the world and become engineers and dentists and translators.

One orphanage is set up for kids with HIV, which you might imagine would be rather bleak, but the children are so funny and playful that they’re a delight to be around, even if it’s only for half-an-hour or so each once a year. They’re clean and just-about fed, and all of them are provided with anti-retroviral drugs. Nevertheless, two of them had died of AIDS-related illnesses since I saw them last year, which was a bit of a shock.

Orphanages here in Cambodia can be snakepits. Unscrupulous locals set them up, look for poor children, take them off their parents and open their doors to tourists who want to coo at the little people and hand over donations, which quickly disappear into the owner’s pockets. The government occasionally bust one of these when the children’s conditions get too bad, but it’s rare. Even worse is when a predatory paedophile from the West arrives and sets up an orphanage, giving him ready access to lots of delightful little children. It happens more than you think.

Of course, all the orphanages I deal with operate at the very highest standards and with the utmost probity. But that can be a rarity in this country. Travelling around the provinces with my colleague Saroen, it was fascinating to hear first-hand about the corruption so many people here take utterly for granted. Like which chains of petrol stations are owned by which government minister’s wife and so pay no tax. Or how that police car (pointing at a proper police car) is actually a fake, and is used for transporting illegal luxury wood to dealers in Vietnam. It was quite an eye-opener.

But later, sitting by a quiet village pond watching swifts dart across the skies and the vast thunderheads well up in the far distance across the perfect deafening green of the Cambodian countryside, or sitting in a roadside shack at dusk eating boiled corncobs and watching out for rock pythons, it seems like there are probably far worse places to be.

Unless you support the Cambodian football team, who lost 0-6 last night to Syria. Syria! Go Angkor Warriors!

Cambodia playing Syria? The world is a small place.

Trouble with orphans, part 2

Wagga“They (Chloe and her boyfriend) come home each night in a drunken manner. She hit me with a book on my head last week” – Srey On.

The plot thickens. Last week we had an apparently straightforward case of a rougue orphanage manager (see here). I must admit that in hindsight the allegations were a bit lurid. Now we have counter-allegations:

Centre head denies child abuse

Thu, 25 June 2015

The director of a children’s centre who was arrested on Tuesday based on complaints from the NGO’s principal donor yesterday denied the accusations of forced labour and child abuse that led to her detention, and maintained that her accuser was actually at fault.

Soy Srey On, 23, said in an interview from the Chbar Ampov district police station that donor Chloe Flanagan had hit her because she was angry that Srey On tried to stop her and her boyfriend from staying at the centre on a visit to Cambodia.

“They come home each night in a drunken manner. She hit me with a book on my head last week,” Srey On said.

“Because the donors asked me to stay [at the NGO] … and they came without prior notice, so I didn’t allow it; they started to get angry towards me.”

Srey On said she had filed her own complaint to police but no action had been taken.

“As the head of an organisation, I am an educator who provides a good example to the kids.

I could not do anything that makes kids follow a bad example,” she added.

Srey On and her boyfriend, Ung Sras – who is wanted by police – are accused of neglecting the children’s hygiene, hitting them with sticks and even having sex in front of them.

Four children were removed from the centre on Tuesday.

Ministry of Social Affairs official Em Chanmakara said in a message yesterday that a nanny at the NGO had been called in for questioning, and that “hopefully tomorrow all documents [related the case] will [be] sent to the court”.

PhonogramThe police could have some work ahead of them. But I’m wondering: running this centre must cost a lot of money, so who and where are the donors?

Bonus link: Where Children Sleep.

Trouble with orphans

   WaggaThe streets of Wagga – where are the people?

On 6 June the Wagga Daily Advertiser (Wagga is a town in New South Wales) reported this human interest story concerning  Chloe Flanagan, a 25 year old local beauty therapist:

Sweltering in the Cambodian heat, Chloe Flanagan is surrounded by people riding motorcycles. She’s in Phnom Penh, home to around 2.2 million people. The city, which still harbours pain from the relatively recent devastation caused by the Khmer Rogue, houses grand elaborate buildings – temples decorated with gold. Drive down the main boulevard and you could mistake it for Paris – but … Phnom Penh harbours some dark secrets. Millions of young children are exploited in Cambodia every year.

Ok, so the prose is a little overcooked, but it’s not every day you find a beauty therapist from Wagga in the grim suburbs of Phnom Penh. It goes on to tell how Chloe “purchased a one-way ticket to Asia and volunteered for three months at a Cambodian orphanage.” There she saw that orphanages are a business and have some very unsavoury things going on . “Often in these institutions the children are kept in deliberately poor conditions so the managers get more money from the generous, misled western tourists.”

Chloe moved on to Laos, where she received “an urgent and distressed call from 22-year-old Srey On,” who had been at the home Chloe had worked at. She was now on the street, on the run from her former orphanage “mother” who was attempting to track her down, hassle her and intimidate her. “She has polio and wears a full leg brace, she still has parents but she is from a small rural village one-and-half hours out of Phnom Penh and there are no opportunities for her there. Her parents sent her to live at the orphanage so she could study.”

(This, incidentally, is very common – many “orphans” are not orphans at all, and find themselves in institutions for all kinds of reasons).

Srey OnSrey On

Srey On and nine children were living in an apartment paid for by a kind-hearted Singaporean woman, with no money and no food. Chloe flew back, organised accommodation, and set up a small  orphanage. “Bethel Children’s Home Cambodia was born.”

4692433_1432459458.4929_funddescriptionYou can read in the article about the ways Bethel helps the kids – it’s pretty heartwarming and more strength to Chloe. (Here’s a nice piece about how crowdfunding helped meet the needs of one handicapped little boy – his mother tried to abort him but did this instead; kids in this condition are mostly in a hopeless situation in Cambodia).

Anyway, I think I like Chloe. Which makes it all the more disturbing to read in the Phnom Penh Post that less than three weeks after that article in the Wagga paper the police raided the orphanage and arrested Srey On – the same Srey On who phoned Chloe – who is its manager.

Em Chanmakara, a secretary general of the Disability Action Council at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said three boys and one girl, between 5 and 10, were removed from the home in response to a complaint made by Chloe Flanagan … The document states that director Soy Srey On, 23 – who was arrested – and her boyfriend, Ung Sras, 24, neglected the children’s hygiene and hit children with sticks, including a child who is mentally and physically disabled. “Both [parties] are involved in beating the children, forcing them to clean toilets, and clean the centre, which is overwork for children,” Chanmakara said.“They even had sex with each other and let children watch.”

They WHAT?????

Chloe made a bad error of judgement in trusting Srey On. That said, I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t have done exactly the same. But please, Chloe, closer supervision from now on, ok?

If you’re interested in helping Chloe, Bethel has a Facebook group for supporters.

Chbal AmpovThe streets of Chhbar Ampov

Cambodia’s shame: innocence for sale

The following article was published on the Penh Pal bog today (7 July). I’m re-blogging it because it’s so important a subject. So many lives ruined, and yet somehow it seems to have slipped out of the care of Cambodia’s many NGOs.

7th July 2014

Writing in Britain’s Observer yesterday, Abigail Hawthorn, who lives in Asia, and writes about global women’s issues for the American edition of Marie Claire, tells the sad story of an impoverished Cambodian mother who sells her daughter’s virginity to a wealthy police general for $US1500. (Also reprinted in the Phnom Penh Post)

For anyone who has spent time here in Asia, this is an all too common story.

“Many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness,” Hawthorn quotes the president of Licadho, Chhiv Kek Pung, as saying. “There’s a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on here, and the rule of law is very weak.”

In many ways, this preoccupation with virginity as a commodity is a uniquely Asian phenomenon. It is not just powerful Cambodia men that fuel the trade (although the bulk of the trade is local). Men from other Asian countries, such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand regular travel here on business and have expect to have a ‘virgin’ as part of the package.

Where the pleasure can lie in raping a terrified innocent is a mystery to most men with any human sensitivity. The practice would seem to support the idea that rape is less about sex than it is an expression of violence against those that are weak and vulnerable.

Some years ago, I met a guy in Thailand from South Asia who was educated in the US. Bizarrely, he boasted about how, while having sex, he liked to pound his female partners into the mattress to the point where it made them bleed.

This, he seemed to believe, was proof of his masculinity.

He was less than happy when I suggested it was more likely these women were simply menstruating — and by being exposed to their blood, he risked possible exposure to HIV.

In her article, Hawthorn makes the point that while sex trafficking has long received more press, the trade in virgins is much more common here, sustained by intrenched poverty, a deep-seated sense of obligation of children to parents, ingrained gender inequality, and a long cultural history of acceptance of the practice.

Even amongst the wealthy here, marriage has traditionally been regarded as more of a business arrangement between families than based on any notion of romantic love. And desperation amongst those living close to the edge is often the key driver of a decision to sell the one thing that seems to have a monetary value in many poor communities.

Licadho’s Pung also makes the point that this may be sad but it’s not ‘sexy’ for the numerous anti-trafficking NGOs and foreign aid donors. The narrative is simply too complicated, given the difference in cultural attitudes to the role of daughters.

“The fear is that, while people might feel sorry for the girls, they’d be too outraged about parents selling their daughters to open their wallets,” she explained.

When they do intervene, many NGOs working in the sector see it as their duty to remove the young women at risk or already a victim from her family. While this may be well-intentioned, it may deal with one problem while creating another — as family is critical for the majority of people in this part of the world.

All too often the problem is also cast in moral terms — curious given that the real victims usually have little control over their circumstances — when economics is seems a more likely answer.

While cultural attitudes clearly support this trade, at its heart is the wretchedness of poverty.

This is what needs to be changed.


Child trafficking: Fagin lives!

What's sold, what's bought?

Who sells, what’s bought?

Disturbing story in the Bangkok Post on 29 June titled Young Lives for Sale. It details the results of an investigation into child beggars in Pattaya, the Thai travel destination nearest Cambodia.

When Fil’s mother brought him from Cambodian as a 10-year-old four years ago, her intentions were far from pure — she planned to exploit him as a child beggar around the tourist hotspots of Pattaya.

And she did, until he ran away and joined a gang of street-kids begging and sleeping rough on Pattaya’s Walking Street. Walking Street is not dangerous – it has one of the highest ratios of cops to civilians in Thailand – but it’s for grown-ups.

Anyway, from being a free-lance child beggar Fil graduated to an organised gang, what you might call the corporatised side of the business. He worked 12 hours a day and got to keep none of his earnings, but he had a proper place to sleep and regular meals, so things were looking up. His new bosses took better care of him than his mother had, and he worked hard for them and avoided the cops, because he didn’t want to be sent back to Cambodia.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 2.47.08 PMEventually his luck changed and he got picked up by an NGO called the Mirror Foundation (which doesn’t seem to have updated it’s home page since January 2013 – the link is to its projects page). MF has a project called Stop Child Beggars which is trying to investigate and understand the trade in Pattaya. This is what they’ve found:

  • Eighty percent of child beggars in Thailand – not in Pattaya, in all Thailand – are Cambodian. The rest are mostly Burmese and Lao, with very few Thai children.
  • The problem is one of human trafficking, not poverty – meaning children are bought into Thailand in order to make money for others, not because of poverty at home.
  • The children in organised begging gangs are not dong so from fear or coercion – they prefer this life to the alternatives, which are to live rough or to go back to Cambodia.
  • Each child has an adult  watcher and a work area: he can’t go outside it, and no one is allowed to encroach. The watcher, who’s paid 6,000 baht (about $200) a month, collects the day’s earnings each evening and passes them up the chain. The children keep little of what they collect.

The article doesn’t say how much a child beggar typically brings in, but if a gang finds itself with “too many” children (meaning not enough watchers?) they’ll typically rent the excess  out at up to 12,000 baht a month (about $370), meaning that the renter expects to make considerably more than this.

The Mirror Foundation reported their findings to the police and the cops cracked down on the child beggars, but it didn’t work – the police can’t spend all their time picking up kids off the street, and when the pressure went off the kids came back.

There’s much more, but the bottom line is, don’t give money to children begging, not in Pattaya, not anywhere.



Incidentally, and because this is supposed to be a blog about books, I recommend Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok thriller Breathing Water – the link is to the Amazon Kindle page, and there are readers’ reviews. One of the strands is about the begging business.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 4.45.10 PM

And since we have a little space left: a video on the subject here; an article from the Pattaya Mail; and a Burmese slant here (I think the Burmese might be the most pitiable, their government being even more useless than the Cambodians).

And  it’s not just Cambodia

(The child in these photos, by the way, is not Fil, they are Cambodian children begging in Pattaya, from Flickr contributor lyndhan).