Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

CAMBODIA PLUS BACK TO WORK MAY 09 140.JPG

Praying for a harmonious, righteous future.

In late 2004, I was working in my New Zealand office when a startling email arrived. It was sent from an internet cafe near Pub Street, Siem Reap where half an hour online cost poor students two dollars.  Back then internet access was not common.

The startling thing about the email was the headline: Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda.

An incident had occurred at Wat Thmey which is on the northern edge of Siem Reap. This is the general scene of the local killing fields; though an international hotel now occupies some of that tragic land. Wat Thmey, because of its location and history has, since the late 1990s, seen a lot of tourist buses.  It is a reflective place to visit I feel, with the stupa containing skulls and bones collected by my friend Savong’s father – pictured above.

But what was the Big Trouble? It turns out a couple of the senior monks were pocketing most of the donations from visiting groups – mostly Japanese and Koreans – and were doing this at the expense of the wider work of the monastery which ran a school, gave homes to homeless children, and trained young monks.

Savong described how a big group of locals had gathered, how angry words were exchanged and how the ‘bad monks’ had been sent packing. A case of village justice I think.

That account quickly unravelled my beautifully stitched together impression of all monks as being very holy people. As with any faith we might care to name; there are bound to be a few bad apples.

Here the lead paragraph from a 2010 story:

Two Cambodian Buddhist monks have been arrested in the popular tourist city of Siem Reap for smoking crystal methamphetamine along with two women in their pagoda.

Or from the Phnom Penh Post, again in 2010.

Phnom Penh – Following the turmoil surrounding the distribution by Bluetooth phone of videos showing several naked women taking their holy bath, the police uncovered more than 300 other pictures in the phone memory of a former monk. The pictures were recovered during a search and arrest made on 26 June 2010. Some of pictures were videos while others were still photos.

In that case the monk was defrocked, (he changed into civilian clothes,) before his arrest.

In 2015 in Phnom Penh six monks were arrested after beating up a mot driver, but charges were dropped. The story is complicated, but the Cambodia Daily account suggests that the driver is the one who started the fracas. He was compensated a million riel.

In 2016 there have been at least three news stories: two very serious cases of rape by individual monks, and just recently a case of 19 young Cambodian monks arrested in Phuket, Thailand for failing to have visas into Thailand, and for soliciting – begging for cash.

Stories like these occur from time to time and rightfully shock the Cambodian community, but unless I’m badly mistaken, the Buddhist church does not cover things up or further victimise victims.

I should end on a note of warning. Not all monks are legitimate. Read this excerpt from the helpful website MoveToCambodia.com

The fake monk scam. Fake monks are usually Chinese and are often (but not always) dressed in brown or mustard-colored robes, unlike the bright orange garb of their authentic Khmer counterpart, and will wear pants underneath their robes. They are usually middle-aged, while most Cambodian monks are in their twenties or even younger. Fake monks don’t usually speak any Khmer and very little English, other than to demand more money. They often wear wooden prayer beads and offer people bracelets or amulets. Fake monks will often collect money well into the night, unlike real monks who only collect in the morning. Perhaps most importantly, it’s reported that they don’t seem to know anything about Buddhism.

Love that last telltale detail!

Another characteristic of fake monks is that they argue and insist you give more than the few riel or dollars you may have donated. They’re big trouble.

For more: Another case of village justice.

 

 

Cambodia needs more than wells to achieve universal clean water access

FRESH WATER

UNICEF reports that 6 million Cambodians do not have access to safe, clean, drinkable water.  The problem is not just lack of wells.

The latest drought across Cambodia has shone the spotlight on the need for clean fresh water.  State initiatives to bring clean bottled water to drought-stricken villages has been useful, but only for the short term. What every Cambodian needs is steady, reliable access to clean fresh water. A recent UNICEF report, dated 2014, calculated that 6.3 million out of Cambodia’s 14.9 million population lacked access to clean drinking water. The problem is, in particular, a rural problem (80% of Phnom Penh’s population has access to clean drinking water,) and the main reason for the problem – the report stated – was that the Government has simply made other developments a higher priority. New roads have higher priority than access to water.

  • Some 40 percent of primary schools and 35 percent of health centers in the country do not have access to safe water and sanitation.
  • The lack of access to clean water leaves Cambodian children vulnerable to diseases such as diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of death among children under five, according to UNICEF.
  • According to WaterAid at least 380 children die each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Since 2014, according to international aid agency WaterAid there is now a national strategy, outlined by the Government, of reaching universal access to clean water by 2025: an objective that will not only play catch-up with the 6 million who lack adequate water supplies today, but will need to also reach the expanding population projected to reach at least 17.5 million by 2025.  Can they achieve this?

The digging of wells is the main solution in the rural villages though for the cities the provision of mains supply water is the main emphasis: treating lake, river sourced or well-sourced waters with full filtration systems as well as chemical treatment such as flouridation or chlorination.

Compounding the problem is the presence of two hazards in the ground and surface waters usually drawn upon by villages.  One hazard is naturally occurring arsenic: an issue that affects the whole Mekong delta region.  On this front Cambodia’s official ‘acceptable’ limit is 50 parts per million – in contrast to 30ppm in most Western countries.

An even more significant hazard is the presence of TTCs (thermo-tolerant coliform bacteria). For these bacteria, water treatment is needed.

Today in the face of drought, now and in the future, the provision of wells is a laudable initiative, and their are many agencies engaged with this – and worth supporting. My friend Savong has helped many well-building projects in rural Siem Reap.

But Cambodia also needs more reservoirs to effectively store water gathered during peak rainy periods and create a top-up for groundwater which, many experts believe, is sinking significantly.

The more wells or holes dug into the groundwater, the more pressure it loses causing well water levels to drop. That’s according to Mekong River Commission technical adviser Ian Thomas as reported in the Phnom Penh Post, last March 4th. A February Stanford University study found the more wells Cambodians dig, the harder it will be to extract water.

The building of reservoirs, (Angkor’s  East and West Baray are good examples from 1,000 years ago,)  would provide greater eco-stability for farming, fishing, and general water supply.

But for now, reservoirs and wells are just the start. Treating the water is also necessary. Water filters are a big part of the story. If you are supporting a water project, ask about the need for water filtration and treatment.

  • Sixty dollars will by a good basic bio-sand filter via Water for Cambodia.
  • Or Ceramic Filters, (they look like clay pots,) which are also recommended, are available through Resource Development International – who also supply water testing kits if you are worried about arsenic levels.

Further reading in this blog:

For more on the politics of water in Cambodia Who owns the Mekong? The intricate politics of water.

Also about the 2016 Drought

For other Facts and Figures about Cambodia

 

 

 

Two years prison – and a vision

SR PRISON3

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.

I post pieces regularly on this blog and if you find my writing at all interesting you are welcome to press the FOLLOW button.

Portrait of Savong – October 2004

Svay Savong - October 2004

Svay Savong – October 2004

This photo was taken 10 years ago when Savong was in his early 20s. He is seated in the small temple on the island of West Baray and if I recall correctly, Savong asked me to take this photo, so it was – on those terms – a formal portrait.

The day was a Friday, and on two previous evenings I had taught at the small classroom at his father’s house, and so on this morning I had suggested that Savong and Pin come with me and be tourists for a day: we took a tuk tuk out past the airport and first visited the silk farm, and the we came back via West Baray, catching a small longboat out the island,

It was relaxing, and in my memory we three were the only people on the island, but of course that’s not true because there was a band of blind musicians playing traditional music which set the tone, by turns moving and festive, and Pin, Savong and myself explored the island, and the two young guys also took up fishing off a small jetty. Pin was expert at catching the small pufferfish that would swell up like golfballs which he would line up on the wooden dock, their little gills heaving, and Pin would flick them back into the water where the fish would  jettison away. Swoosh!

While Pin remained fishing, Savong showed me to the small wooden temple, and – taking our shoes off – we entered.

As you can see; incense was burning, and it’s fragrance wafted in the light breeze. We took photos, and as he sat, Savong explained the significance of the cross-legged pose, and showed me how I should hold my hands. There’s a photo of me sitting in the same position as Savong, but it is an awkward facsimile of this photo – me in my black t-shirt, my legs in agony as I try to emulate the lotus position.

But this photo captures the Savong I first met. He is still attending classes at high school, his market-bought jeans are too long and need tailoring – but never mind that. He is devout, determined, and he fixes my camera with a confident stare into the lens.

Soon after this we sat near the musicians and as we watched them play, and listened to their sweet, plaintive music Savong told me about his dream to open a school in the countryside.

“How you think brother?” From everything I had seen in Cambodia to that point, it was a perfect idea.

Pin was still on the jetty with his small bamboo fishing rod. Savong however, had just caught a bigger and more willing fish.

For more about Savong: