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

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My friend Pin. I went to visit him in prison and got mixed up in his release.  It was a mighty moment to share – a privilege – but his background, right back to his childhood, is still stacked against him.

Cambodian prisons used to be a horror story of violence and starvation, not to mention corruption.  But they seem to have cleaned up their act – and today the focus is more on rehabilitation. My friend Sopin, or just plain Pin, has been to prison twice on drugs charges – weed – and told me that these places used to be places of fear.  Now, he told me, they’re places of learning and counseling.

On December 28th I went out to visit him with a mutual friend Savong whom I’ve known since 2004 when Pin introduced me to Savong. We subsequently went on to build a school in the countryside. Pin was never central to the school project, but he is the person who connected Savong and me together. He was the key to the story that basically changed my life.

Pin is a handsome guy, with chiseled features and deep, but sparkling eyes. He has a natural charm that belies the fact that he endured a terrible upbriging. He knows no family and was raised at a Buddhist Monastery: Wat Thmey – which is known as the killing fields pagoda in Siem Reap.  On display there are skulls and bones from many hundred who were slaughtered during the genocide of the 1970s. After the years of genocide, when a quarter of the population lost their lives in Cambodia, the nation then endured years of poverty, cut off from world trade or aid.  Cambodia was so poor it could not grow enough rice to feed its own people. Children like Pin became beggars at age 6, and some survived eating insects and the bark off trees. Monasteries took these kids in, and it was at Wat Thmey that Savong grew up with Pin. They have a loyalty that goes way back, though in recent years this has been strained by Savong’s relentless drive to become a businessman and Pin’s loose, somewhat lost lifestyle – dabbling in work and trying out drugs. He served some time as a medic assistant in the army, a time he enjoyed, but three years ago he got arrested for smoking dope and engaging in gambling: in Cambodia you are not allowed to gamble for money – unless you’re a Chinese tourist in which case your Casino dollars are welcome. We’re talking about a weekly poker game.

On that occasion we organised a lawyer and he helped trim 2 years off Pin’s 5 year sentence. Pin resided in Siem Reap Prison where I visited him once.  He had a black eye due to a fight in his cell – where 21 prisoners shared meagre food and a shortage of space.

But he got released after 3 years and photos show that he actually put on weight.  Far from the sallow, hungry image of my imagination, Sopin emerged fit and healthy.

It was not to last.  With a record against his name, in a land where everyone carries around Cambodia ID, and everyone seems to sport a CV in the search for good jobs, Pin couldn’t get work.  A tuk tuk we’d given him 5 years earlier had been lost to drugs and gambling.  Soon he was back with mates who supplied him once more with drugs. It was only a matter of time before he got arrested again. This time he was sent to another prison – one aimed at re-education and rehabilitation.

Savong and I went out to visit on December 28th. The prison consisted of two main buildings set inside a flat dusty spread of farmland. On the left were the kitchens and the classrooms while the building on the right housed the prisoners, just 42 of them.  The gap between the two ground-level buildings was roofed over so that people could take advantage of the shade. We visited in the ‘cool’ season but the sun was already scorching when we came out that afternoon.

The centre is minimum security, with a basic 8ft fence around the grounds, and a guards station at the front gate. This is where we enquired whether we could meet Pin and meet the chief warden. The atmosphere was extremely casual.

As we strode in the 100 metres toward the two buildings we could see at least a dozen prisoners gathering to chat with each other and meeting visitors. Pin saw us and ran up and gave me a mighty hug. He was really happy to see two friends.  He’d not had other visitors in months and while I talked to him, Savong asked a guard whether he could discuss Pin’s case with the chief warden. I didn’t realise the guy he was talking to was a guard: I thought he was one of the prisoners.  Like them he wore a t-shirt, though his was red where everyone else was in blue.

Pin was in good spirits, and he showed me around the prison; the classrooms where they learned cooking and other life skills, as well as the main office in which I could see Savong busy in discussion. A few minutes into our meet up a small boy in blue pants and blue t-shirt came up to Pin and wrapped himself around Pins legs.

“He’s 10,” Pin explained. He was clinging to Pin and sensed something was up.  Our conversation spread out and was shared by other prisoners, all who seemed pretty relaxed though a couple of older guys looked pretty ravaged by drugs.  They stuck to themselves. Pin explained how he’d become the informal leader of the 42 prisoners, and had made sure the small boy – who was inside for glue sniffing (his parents were deemed unable to provide adequate care,) – was getting adequate care. Pin had clearly become a father figure for the boy.

Soon, Savong came out and explained that the prison was at a tipping point with Sopin. He’d made good progress, and the warden had noted our big hug too: an indication that Pin had a support network outside the prison gates. Finally they said that rehab prison was costly to provide and that Pin had been unable to pay anything toward the rehab. Technically he owed the Centre. It wasn’t a bribe, but it is hard to explain the leeway that the Chief Warden had at his disposal. What we did was suggest a few hundred dollars would settle what was owing, as well we could offer the promise to support Pin once on the outside. Would this be enough for the prison to let our friend go?  Suddenly this seemed to be on the cards.

Pin realised that the course of the discussion was about his future – and he could sense the possibility of an early release – and as I tried talking to him he really couldn’t concentrate on our particular conversation. He indicated that his heart was jumping out of his rib cage.  His future was on the line.

Savong said he needed to get back into town to get some cash, and he left me there so we could talk some more. Meanwhile the junior guard, the guy with the red shirt, was summoned to the Chief’s office and told that Pin could be released immediately. Word got around everyone in the shaded area within about 10 seconds. Pin lit up with the news and his mates rushed up to congratulate him. The small boy was crowded out and I nudged the well-wishers to one side so that the boy could snuggle up to Sopin. The boy was in tears.  How many times had he lost the people he’d learned to trust?  Now he was losing again.

I’m told that another chidren’s welfare NGO has good plans to look after the boy, but in the midst of what was proving to be an enjoyable visit the look on the small boy’s face was haunting.

Savong soon returned and signed some papers and, well, that was it.  Pin was free to go. Savong headed back to his car while I helped Pin carry some of his meagre possessions from the dormitory block where, now that visiting time was up, the prisoners had returned.  They were now behind bars, hanging onto these and watching Pin’s exit.

What a mighty feeling that was. As Pin walked the hundred meters back to the guard’s gate the other prisoners stood and gave him a ‘kar teahdai’ which is Khmer for a round of applause. Pin’s chest swelled and he strode in the same way astronauts in the movies stride when they’ve come back to earth – the slow motion walk of heroes. It was a pleasure to share that moment, though I bit my lip at the same time. This was just the beginning for Pin, once more, and I wondered how he’d cope this time, now he was out again. But what got me most was the face of the small boy in blue. He was standing at the barred window and applauding like the others. But when I turned to see him he momentarily stopped applauding and wiped away tears.

PS.  A week or two later I learned that Pin has gone back, as a visitor, to check that the little boy is okay. I hope they stay in contact.

Link:   A joke about Cambodian Prisons that got a little too close for comfort.

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.

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Two years prison – and a vision

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You may have read a recent post of mine in which I recalled a recent visit to see a friend in one of the two prisons in Siem Reap. My friend was arrested as part of a police swoop on illegal gambling (common amongst taxi drivers) and for 5 months my friend has waited for a court hearing.  Savong arranged for a lawyer to represent our friend, and this week we heard the verdict: a 2 years sentence made longer than we hoped on account of  a police claim that my friend had been using drugs. Less 5 months served, my hapless friend has 17 more months to serve.

I have committed to help him where I can – topping up his meagre prison rations mostly with some money each month. But my friend passed on another message: that when he gets out he wants a motorbike to help get him started once more.

That’s Cambodia in a nutshell. Your life is turning bad but it doesn’t matter: you have golden hopes for the future. That’s the eternal optimism of my friend, and it was the eternal optimism of his older Cambodian forebears who strove to survive the ugly Pol Pot years. It is raw human hope.

Post script 2019. My friend served more time but in December 2019 stepped out of prison and he has a job provided by Savong, as well as a second-hand motorbike to provide much needed independence and transport. 

For an update to the story: click here.

280 Jailed Kids – Cambodia

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The story about my visit to a friend in prison hit a nerve I think, because several people told me their stories of Cambodians who have ended up in prison, serving long sentences either for minor offenses (like my friend) or for totally trumped-up charges.

One organisation that works in this arena is LICADHO – the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. They have their work cut out for them. They monitor 18 prisons and their reports show that, inside prison walls, life is dominated by corruption.

As they say: “There is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable, from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.”

For the past 20 years, on International Human Rights Day, LICADHO has provided small packages of extra food to the prison population and entertainment such as games, traditional dancing and shows performed by the prisoners themselves as well as speeches on the importance and universality of fundamental human rights.

What we do

LICADHO believes that regular visits by prison researchers deter abuses in prison and make it easier for LICADHO to intervene when they do occur. LICADHO’s prison activities include:

  • Interview incoming pretrial detainees to ensure that they have legal representation and can communicate with their families
  • Check for violations of pretrial detainees’ rights, such as illegal arrests and excessive pretrial detention/li>
  • Monitor the actions of court and prison officials to ensure that the legal process is conducted properly/li>
  • Assist families in visiting their relatives in prison and provide assistance in avoiding corruption/li>
  • Provide legal assistance, advice and support to prisoners who have suffered human rights abuses in prison or in police custody/li>
  • Work with prison and court authorities to ensure the timely release of convicted prisoners who complete their sentences/li>
  • Distribute food and materials to prisoners/li>
  • Provide medical treatment for prisoners and prison staff (provided by LICADHO’s Medical Office)/li>

LICADHO’s prison researchers also monitor living conditions in the prisons, looking at issues such as the quality of food, water, sanitation, the size and cleanliness of living areas, and exercise for prisoners outside of their cells. Information about prison conditions and any violations of prisoners’ rights are compiled for LICADHO reports and used for other advocacy purposes.

LICADHO is currently the only NGO in Cambodia with access to prisons that regularly shares its findings with the public.

They have a particular focus on basic human rights, (food, education, health,) as well as a determination to improve the lot of children who are either in prison on charges (sometimes streets are ‘swept’ of beggars) or are children of adults who have been incarcerated.

At the end of April 2014 there were a total of 280 juvenile prisoners incarcerated in the 18 prisons monitored by LICADHO, a more than 50 percent drop in the juvenile prison population since 2011. In addition there were 13 pregnant women and 40 children living with their incarcerated mothers.

Their research into prisons does not make easy reading when you know somebody who is stuck inside a Cambodian jail.  One guy who contacted me talked about a conversation he’d had with a prison guard who admitted, more or less, to beating-up prisoners. His rationale: “we want prison life to be less attractive than life in poverty outside of prison.”

For more on LICADHO’s Prison Project read PRISON PROJECT.

Also Caritas Cambodia and education-based NGO This Life Cambodia run positive programs assisting prisoners and their families. These are well worth checking out and supporting.

If you find my blogs at all interesting please feel welcome to press the FOLLOW button at the top left. I write as a supporter of Savong’s School in Bakong, but my topics of interest spread right out to education in general as well as to the arts and life in Cambodia in general. I try to write well-researched pieces and provide links where I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to prison in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Last time I was in Siem Reap, during Pchum Ben (which is the local thanksgiving festival,) I had arranged to meet an old friend that I’d first met in 2004. We’ve stayed in touch mainly through Facebook as well as through my sporadic visits. My friend is a tuktuk driver.

Now, tuktuk drivers have a life that would be recognised by taxi drivers everywhere. Times of busyness punctuated by long periods waiting for a job: for the next flight to arrive, or for the tourist season to pick-up.

As I found in Bangkok, being a western tourist – one becomes an easy mark for tuktuk drivers to do a little side business. In Bangkok the patter goes: “Hey mister, you want ride?”  I shake my head. “You want girl?” No thanks I say.  “Perhaps you like boy?” he tries. I wave him away.

In Siem Reap there seem to be just two levels to the hustle. “You want ride?” And if you say ‘no thanks’ then one is frequently asked: “you want drugs?”  Which I’m told is usually the offer of marijuana. Western backpackers probably generate a lot of business in this respect. Me? I’ve never used dope, though I did unsuccessfully try inhaling on a soggy spliff back when I was a student.

Now back to my friend. We had agreed to meet but he never showed up.

That was unusual, so Savong helped me locate my friend. We asked dozens of tuktuk drivers if they knew where he was. We showed photos. We tried bars where he was known to hang out. Nothing. He had disappeared.

Then word came through from one of the drivers. The police had – in an anti-gambling sting – raided a house and arrested several drivers who were gambling: betting on cards which is illegal in Cambodia. You can bet on kick-boxing, and you can put money on volleyball games, but you can’t gamble with cards. My friend was one of 12 arrested.

Savong phoned a policeman friend and we found out where our friend had been taken: to a prison on the south-eastern edge of town. The  Armed Forces Prison.

Now this is the good prison. There’s another prison in town which is older and with conditions that are, I’m told, far worse.

We went out to visit the next day. The photo above shows me standing on the driveway. Far from being a cold bastion of incarceration, the front entrance looked, well, festive. Silk banners were flying in the hot October breeze. Families, big and small, rich and poor, were turning up to visit. It felt like picnic day.

We registered our names, and handed in our cellphones, then waited in a small shaded waiting room, watching prisoners in their orange clothing which was more reminiscent in this country of Buddhist monks really, than of the standard prison garb we see on TV.  Some prisoners were carrying out light duties – escorting visitors to the meeting room, and running messages for the guards. One young guy, who clearly loved his role, had the task of announcing to visitors when their inside friend was ready to meet.

He proudly exhorted the two of us: “Mister Savong and Mister Duncan! – your friend is ready to see you!”  His enthusiasm was genuinely infectious.

So we went to the meeting room – a long room with half-height walls to let the breeze through, but divided down the centre by a long bench and chicken wire. Visitors on this side. Prisoners, at least 30 of them, on that side. One of them was my friend.

He lit up! After two weeks he’d had no visitors. The police had taken his phone and he has no family – he’s an orphan – so he had no way of knowing if anybody cared.  His face shone like a beacon.  Well, he had a black-eye also, but it was his smile that I most recall.

In Cambodia the law works upside down. If you are arrested you basically go straight to jail and if you have resources, then you can get a hearing to either plead innocence or plead for a lighter sentence. If you have no resources then basically you have to take what you’re given – in this case 3 – 5 years imprisonment. For a card game.

So no wonder he felt some relief. He had not been forgotten. Touching fingers through the chicken-wire we talked and laughed for a few minutes, then we talked about next steps. I’m helping Savong get a lawyer and we’ll do what we can do get our friend out. I suspect a judge will want to see reparation of some sort: money no-doubt.

The visit was unexpected and on one level incredibly interesting and actually enjoyable. Seeing my friend was really valuable and it honoured a promise I made 11 years ago, that I would never forget my friend. These promises are important to keep.

We were given a scant 15 minutes to talk and right near the end I asked him how he got his black eye.

“There is always a fight over food,” he told me. “Every dinner time, there is not enough food. People fight in our cell.”

“How many people in your cell?” I asked him.

“Twenty one brother. And me.”

And that’s the good prison. I hope upon hope that we can get him out soon.

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A case of village justice in Cambodia

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Is a cop’s job to discourage bad behavior or to punish bad behavior? The local policeman in Bakong showed a very wise sense of judgement.

A couple of years back a girl attending Savong’s School  was harassed one evening by a group of local boys. Another student saw what was going on and the police were called from their station, a small building, not 200 meters away.

In a village like Bakong, 14 kms East of Siem Reap,  everybody knows everyone. It didn’t take long for the policeman, a genial fellow, to work out who the boys were. He went to each of their families and ordered the young men (all unemployed,) to meet him on Thursday morning at his police station. He also asked the girl to attend, as well as her witnesses; students from Savong’s School.

At the meeting the policeman, a well-built middle aged man in his olive green uniform, wore a judicial frown. After asking the witnesses to positively identify the young men he gave them a stern lecture. It was a grave experience for each guilty party because their parents were on hand as well. The feeling of shame was palpable. The policeman pointed out that they were on a bad path; a path that could lead directly to jail, and everyone knows in Siem Reap that this is not a good place. He told the boys that he had it within his power to send the boys to prison right away. In fact he could see no reason why not to, he told them. The boys were on the precipice. There were gasps in the crowded room.

Then the policeman who single-handedly played the good-cop, bad-cop routine said something unexpected. “If the young student asks me to send you boys to jail, I will do so immediately. It is up to the girl and her friends.”

The students formed a huddle and clearly they too were shaken by the enormity of the consequences here. Jail? After a few moments they asked if they could take the problem away with them to school where they would discuss their response with their classmates. The policeman gave them to the next day, and ordered the young men to turn up, with their parents the next morning.

At Savong’s School the senior students discussed at length what would be suitable justice. Soon they came up with a fair response. And so they turned up at the Friday morning meeting at the small police station in Bakong.

“What is your decision?” asked the policeman.

The students outlined their thinking. That the boys were clearly guilty of serious behaviour – cornering the girl and being sexually suggestive – but that jail was too harsh. Their recommendation was to let the boys off “this time” but that next time they would not hesitate to recommend jail.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The young men were suitably chastened and, no doubt, faced their forms of domestic justice from their parents who had been disgraced by their sons. The policeman let the boys know that they had been very lucky that the students had been so forgiving this time.

And so justice was dispensed and, to my knowledge, the boys have walked a straight and narrow path ever since.

I’m critical, deeply critical, of Cambodia’s weak justice system whereby the rich and powerful can apparently get away, scot free, after a hit and run accident,  while a poor farmer can be jailed for years for protesting the illegal acquisition of his land and livelihood.

But on another level I totally admire the fair work of the local policeman in Bakong. His wisdom and local knowledge mean, I’m sure, that he has never needed to unlock the rifle cupboard that he keeps on show with its old Chinese army rifles. Neither did he press formal charges. Instead, knowledge, shame and a reminder of what “could happen” is armament enough for the policeman to keep the peace in this rural community.

For another story from Savong School – The boy who was nearly sold.

Or a story about An actual folk tale from Cambodia

If you enjoyed this true story about our project in Cambodia, don’t forget to press the FOLLOW button – we’d love your company.

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.