A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

A happy/sad punchline with a pair of maimed feet.

One of the standing jokes I have with the SOC students in Cambodia is how I mysteriously lost two toes on my right foot. I offer all kinds of explanations (tigers, sharks, crocodiles) but none of the students ever believe me. “You lie!” they laugh at  me. “Tell us what really happened.”

One day I met the parents of one of the students – on the left – and his father showed me the scars he suffered as a 16 year old when Pol Pot came to power. A bullet wound had fractured his wrist, while sniper fire had ripped a scar across a calf muscle. And even his right foot bore the marks of the conflict – a landmine I think – because his big toe was missing. The student and his friends urged me to show his dad my foot – so I took off my sandal and revealed my own tragic right foot. The two of us men laughed in recognition (he’s almost the same age as me) then we stopped laughing as if on cue. Clouds gathered over our cross-cultural “snap!” moment. They were the clouds of war, and of terror and of bitter memories. On the surface our wounds were similar, but mine were superficial, while his went right back to his heart.

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Prize Giving – 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Prize Giving - 8 years ago. First prize a bicycle.

Savong in white – 2005. This was his first prize giving ceremony a director of Savong’s School. Today he has 20 times the school roll compared to 8 years ago.

The photo was taken on a film camera and developed poorly so it has the ancient Kodachrome look about it, but this scene is at Savong’s father’s house 2005 when Savong held his first prize-giving for students at his original classroom. That year the school in Bakong was currently under construction (it would open 3 months later) so this is truly an “old school” photo. The prize for the top student was a bicycle – a gesture that gave that put that student on the road to personal advancement. I wonder what happened to that student. Where is he today? I do know this: back then there were 25 in the class. Today Savong’s School has more than 500 students enrolled.

A joke about Cambodian prison that got too close for comfort.

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Today I enjoyed a Facebook exchange with one of the students we support in Cambodia. He’d posted a photo with his friends and I replied by saying that they looked like a group of gangsters. We riffed on the idea, with announcements that the police were coming and…as our joke continued, the manhunt ended with ME being arrested and put behind bars. I asked if he would visit me in my “new home” but he said – tellingly – that it was not safe to do so. Ha ha!

Not safe? The exchange got me thinking about the awful prisons in Cambodia where – for example – the Siem Reap jail is so overcrowded that there is not room for every inmate to sleep at the same time. This is despite a major upgrade in 2010. They have double their planned occupancy thanks I think to a rise in enforceable ‘crimes’ (no number plate on your motorbike? can’t pay the fine?), the war on drugs (drugs offences are up sharply,) as well as the high level of police corruption. In nine years I’ve twice encountered Cambodian friends who were locked up for non-crimes (a minor traffic accident) and they were told that only money could “sort out this mess.” In one case the money was several thousand dollars – 10 months salary of a middle-level bank worker. Question for readers: do you resist corruption and let a Cambodian acquaintance rot in prison?

Of particular sadness however is the question of youth incarceration. In Cambodia young people – vagrants – are “swept off the street” quite often and locked up without access to justice. As one social justice organisation THIS LIFE CAMBODIA says on their website:

Cambodia does not have a juvenile justice system. Children aged 14-18 are tried in the adult criminal justice system and are subsequently detained and imprisoned in adult prisons. Approximately 95 children are held in Siem Reap prison where numerous issues threaten their rights, despite Cambodian and international laws to the contrary.

Putting aside youth incarceration, there’s the problem facing families who have a family member locked-up in jail. We know that many are simply innocent and victims of corruption, and the others at the very least have little access to a fair, transparent and just system unless they have the wealth, the connections and the knowledge to get the best from the system: an unlikely prospect.

How do their families cope? THIS LIFE CAMBODIA points out that one cannot even visit a prison without being expected to pay bribes to underpaid prison guards at several points. The affordability of basic justice is out of reach for many.

There are also children of prisoners – infants who have no other carers. Here’s a carefully written watchdog report on what they face: and it makes grim reading. Click here.

The story is not a pretty one, and I’m not surprised my student friend didn’t want to come close to prison – even in jest.

Added detail February 2019. Early this year, some 6 years after writing the main article, I went to visit a friend in jail and I took the boy in this article, Moeuncheat, along for the experience, along with Australian supporter Romayne.  Both knew the inmate and both were pleasantly surprised by the relaxed atmosphere of Siem Reap prison, and by the joyful response of the person we were visiting.

See also: Free, free at last. A precious shared moment in Cambodia.

By the way – if you find my blogs thoughtful,  interesting or entertaining, don’t forget to hit the follow button! I love to write and I’d love your company.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the new blood sugar

Coke has pledged to use only ethical sugar – so they’ll be under strict watch in Cambodia where farmers have been unlawfully evicted to make way for large sugar companies.

Land of the Blind

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About a year ago we were reminded in a blog by David Pred of IDI, “Before you reach for that Tate and Lyle sugar packet to sweeten your coffee, you might want to think twice.  While most Tate and Lyle sugar packets carry the Fair Trade label, Cambodian farmers who were displaced and dispossessed by their suppliers say that if you are buying this product, you are buying their blood.” Now, you can officially say the same about Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

The blood sugar campaign continued after hundreds of farmers in Cambodia were forcibly evicted to make way for agro-industrial sugar cane plantations, run by key Pepsi and Coke suppliers. Thanks to the ongoing activism of these farmers, supported by Oxfam and other civil society organizations, these corporations were finally called out for the atrocities occurring within their supply chain.

In Cambodia, sugar provides a major industry with exports at…

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H&M pledges fair living wage to suppliers

Fashion label with a conscience. A slow reaction to Cambodian and Bangladesh worker safety? While fashion labels announce new minimum wages on November 23rd Cambodia’s garment workers made a claim for $150 per month to be the new minimum: a lot higher than H&M or Walmart have been discussing.

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High street fashion chain H&M has announced that it plans to pay a fair living wage to all of its suppliers.Helena Helmersson, the brand’s head of sustainability, unveiled the company’s ‘road map’ at the European Conference on Living Wages this week. The new scheme focuses on wage development at the factories of its suppliers by demanding that all those who work to make H&M products have their wages negotiated and annually reviewed, involving democratically elected trade unions or worker representatives.

READ: H&M’s plans to spotlight sustainability

Although H&M is to be applauded for the scheme, it is going to be a slow process. In September 2011 the brand joined the Fair Wage Network initiative which assessed more than 200 of their key suppliers’ factories (they currently source from 1,800 factories). By 2014 they will 850,000 workers across three ‘model’ factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh under the fair wage scheme and…

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