Monday, August 26, 2013

Cambodia's English language print media intimidated into silence?

In 2008 an Australian based Non Government Organization, Citipointe church, illegally removed two children from the care of their Cambodian parents. When it became apparent that the church had no intention of returning the children, that Citipointe intended to retain custody of them until they were 18 (they were 5 and 6 at the time), I asked the English language media in Cambodia to investigate, to ask some questions of the Brisbane based church relating to its legal right to be holding the children against the wishes of their parents. One newspaper made some enquiries and was immediately threatened with legal action by Citipointe. The newspaper backed off. Since then neither the Cambodia Daily nor the Phnom Penh Post has had the nerve touch the story. Five years later and neither newspaper will even ask questions of Citipointe.

In a country in which there is no effective rule of law and in which court cases can be (and are) won by those with the money to be able to afford the verdict they want, it is understandable (though regrettable) that newspapers would be fearful of taking on a cashed up and litigious NGO. Of course the same principle applies in Australia.

Where once newspapers could afford the costs involved in defending themselves from defamation suits that were little more than a form of intimidation, today they cannot. The loss for all of us is quality investigative journalism of the kind that Kate McClymont engaged in when, despite all the threats and intimidation, she exposed Eddie Obeid and his corrupt cronies.

There is another reason why journalists engage in much less investigative  journalism these days. Cost. It can take a lot of time, a lot of effort and hence a lot of dollars to carry out a thorough investigation of the kind that safeguards a journalist (and his or her publisher) somewhat from being sued. Newspapers can’t afford this kind of journalism today. It is much cheaper to public opinions. Indeed, it costs nothing to publish opinions!

It is to be expected that investigative journalism will, increasingly, be carried out by individuals with a bee in their bonnet about a particular issue and be prepared to work on it for zero income. The Julian Assanges, Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens will do the work that investigative journalists once did and, in all likelihood, be jailed for doing so. Thank God for GlennGreenwald.

The bee in my bonnet is the way in which unscrupulous NGOs in Cambodia can steal the children of poor parents and be assured that the local media will not hold them to account. Or, if the media attempts to hold NGOs accountable, that the threat of a defamation suit will put the media back in their place!

Dear Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post

Since 2004 the number of children living in orphanages in Romania has dropped by close to 75%.

During the same 9 years the number of orphans in Cambodia has risen by roughly 75%.

Why is this?

In Rwanda, a country that has suffered a more recent genocide than Cambodia,  the number of orphanages has declined from over 400 five years ago to only 33 in 2012.

Given that only 25% of the children in Cambodian ‘orphanages’ are actually orphans, why are there close to 300 orphanages in Cambodia?

The Rwandan government has promised to close all orphanages in the country by 2014. Why is the Cambodian government doing nothing to close orphanages  nd see the children in them returned to their families and communities?

Are some, or perhaps many, of these Cambodian ‘orphanages’ in fact lucrative businesses that have been set up to by unscrupulous NGOs primarily to make money through donations and sponsorships?

Is there any English language newspaper in Cambodia prepared to ask such questions or are both the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post terrified of being sued by NGOs merely for asking them?

Given that studies by the World Bank and Save the Children (amongst others) reveal that orphanages cost between 6 and 10 times as much as it costs to support a child within a family, why are NGOs not helping poor children within a family and community context?  

How many Cambodian children have no uncles, aunts, cousins or others in their extended families or village who could take care of them if they received assistance from NGOs?

Since 2000 American  academics have kept track of 136 children from orphanages in Romania. They have found that the IQ levels of children who remain in large institutions are lower than those put in foster care. Both groups had lower scores than those who were not institutionalized at all. This is but one of the studies that confirm the deleterious effects of institutional living on children.

Given that even the best NGOs, running the most caring of institutions and with the very best of intentions, could assist between 6 and 10 times as many poor kids in a family and community context why is it that they are so wedded to an institutional model that has been proven to be damaging to children?

Is it a matter of concern to the NGO community that some of its members are engaged in human rights abuses in the way the deception they practice to remove children from their families, in the way they alienate the kids from their families, culture and religion? Is it a matter of concern to the English language media in Cambodia? If so, why is there virtually no investigative journalism that seeks to get answers to questions of the kind being raised here?

Whose needs are being met when well-meaning NGOs set up and run ‘orphanages’ and refuges for ‘victims of human trafficking’? The needs of the children and their families or the needs of NGOs to feel wanted, loved, to ‘making a difference’, to be seen by others as being compassionate, generous, kind-hearted and an all around ‘good person’ or, in the case of the most unscrupulous, to make a quick and easy buck?

How many expatriate NGOs who make their living and get a boost to their self-esteem  raising the children of poor Cambodian families in institutions have ever wondered how they would feel if, as a result of their own poverty, they were denied the opportunity to bring their own children up? How many expatriate NGOs with children would be happy to have their visiting rights to their kids limited to 2 hours per month or, in some cases, to 2 hours per annum? How many expatriate NGOs with children would want to see their children brought up with a different set of religious beliefs to the ones practiced by the NGOs themselves. Imagine, as a Christian, (for Christian NGOs reading this) if your poverty left you with little or no choice but to seek the help of a Buddhist NGO so that your children could eat, receive medical attention when ill and get a halfway decent education. How would you feel if the Buddhist NGO then refused to allow your child to take part in Christian celebrations but instead inculcated them with Buddhist beliefs?  

Is it possible for an NGO to remove children (and in particular, girls) from their families because the NGO ‘believes’ that the child is ‘at risk’? If so, does the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs conduct any investigation itself to determine whether the child is genuinely ‘at risk’ or has been defined as such by an NGO wishing to recruit from poor families ‘victims’ that it can then use to raise money through donations and sponsorships? And, when money has been so raised, how much of it is used to help the very poor families from which these children come to lift themselves out of dire poverty and dependence on NGOs and provide them with the wherewithal to be self-sufficient and are so able to take care of their own children?

Does the Ministry of Social Affairs adequately monitor the activities of NGOs running ‘orphanages’ and refuges that have ostensibly been set up to rescue ‘victims of human trafficking’? If not, why not?

Are questions such as these raised and discussed within the NGO community? Or does a conspiracy of silence prevail because for a large number of NGOs caring for ‘orphans’ and ‘rescuing victims of human trafficking’ provide them not just with their bread and butter but with a boos to their egos and the illusion that they are ‘good’ people making a positive contribution to improving the lot of poor Cambodians? If poverty alleviation is the goal of so many NGOs why is it that so many of them are concerned primarily with the poverty of the children and not with the parents?

Why do NGOs such as Citipointe church’s SHE refuge go unchallenged by the English speaking media in Cambodia when they deceive materially poor parents into giving up their daughters on a short term basis, keep them for years on end (regardless of the parents’ wishes) and advertise them as ‘victims of human trafficking’?

If there is no debate within the NGO community about the efficacy of the work done by ‘orphanages’ and ‘rescue centres’ (and I see little evidence of it) why do the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post not start such a debate? Surely it is one of the important roles of the media to raise questions such as these, to foster dialogue and debate and to seek answers from those NGOs who formulate policy which, regardless of their good intentions, results in the breaking up of families and the alienating of Cambodian kids from their families, religion and culture?

Who in Cambodia, in the interests of transparency, accountability and safe-guarding the human rights of ‘orphans’ and their parents is going seek answers to such questions and hold unscrupulous NGOs responsible for their actions?

If the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post are not going to ask the questions that need to be asked, who will?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Another letter for Pastor Leigh Ramsay re returning to Chanti and Chhork the daughters Citipointe church removed from their care illegally five years ago

Leigh Ramsay
322 Wecker Road
QLD 4152                                                                                          

21st  August 2013

Dear Leigh

Again, it comes as no surprise that you have not responded to my letter of 8th August. You have no respect whatsoever for the basic principles of transparency and accountability when it comes to Citipointe church’s dealings with Chanti and Chhork. You have no respect for their human rights or those of their daughters Rosa and Chita. You removed these children illegally from the care of their parents in mid 2008 using a sham ‘contract’ (a fact acknowledged by everyone who reads it) that you told Chanti she must sign. Being illiterate, Chanti could not read the document and had no knowledge of its contents other than what she was told.

Citipointe informed Chanti that the other person present when she applied her thumb print to the 31st July 2008 ‘contract’ was from LICADHO. Indeed, on several occasions in 2008 your staff (in emails and telephone conversations) referred to the removal of Rosa and Chita from the family as having the blessing of LICADHO; that it was LICADHO who insisted that Chanti’s visitation rights be limited from 2 hours every two weeks to two hours per month. Several times your staff said that the way in which the removal took place was in accordance with guidelines laid down by LICADHO and Chab Dai.

LICADHO, for five years now, has refused to either confirm nor deny that it was involved in the removal of Rosa and Chita from their parent’s care or that it was  LICADHO’S idea that a mothers visiting rights to her children be limited to 24 hours per year.

Whilst it is clear from the sham 31st. July 2008 document that Chanti’s reason for seeking assistance from Citipointe was poverty, Citipointe later sought to justify its action in keeping Rosa and Chita contrary to their parents express wishes by re-defining the girls as ‘victims of human trafficking.’ As you know, this is a lie. Rosa and Chita were never trafficked and never in danger of being trafficked. Their parents sought short term relief from Citipointe when in the midst of a serious financial crisis and when this crisis had passed, in Nov of 2008, asked for their daughters to be returned to them. Citipointe refused and continues, in August 2013, to do so.

Today, Chanti and Chhork are both land and home owners. They are living close to self-sufficient lives in a village where a substantial number of members of Chhork’s extended family lives. And yet Citipointe continues to refuse to release the girls back into the care of the family. You provide no reason for this. The Ministry of Social Affairs provides no reason for this and clearly has no interest in the legality of Citipointe’s actions in removing the girls in the first place or in seeing them returned to their family. In short, Citipointe is free to do whatever it likes with the girls in its care and there is no-one, no body, no organization, no government department, that will hold the church accountable. You can raise as much money from sponsors and donors as you like in your exploitation of Rosa and Chita as ‘victims of human trafficking’ and give none of the money raised in this deceitful way to help the family.

I am copying this letter to LICADHO and Chab Dai (as I have done all of my correspondence) in the hope that one or both organizations will put some pressure on you to provide documents demonstrating that the church’s removal of Rosa and Chita in mid 2008 was legal. As you know, the ‘contract’ you got Chanti to sign on 31st. July 2008 (not countersigned by anyone from your church or by a witness) is a worthless document from a legal point of view.  It provides Citipointe with none of the rights that the church claimed, to both Chanti and myself, that it did back in 2008.

From 31st July 2008 and for the following 15 months your church effectively, from a legal point of view, held Rosa and Chita as kidnap victims – severely limiting the parents access to them and refusing Chanti’s and Chhork’s every request that they be released back into their care. As I have been asking for close to five years now, if this statement is untrue, prove to Chab Dai, to LICADHO, to  Chanti, Chhork and myself  (Chanti’s legally appointed advocate) that it is untrue by producing whatever contract or other legal document the church has which reveals the legality of Citipointe’s actions in mid 2008.

After five years Chanti’s heart continues to break each and every time you promise to release the girls back into hers and Chhork’s care and then renege on that promise. And after five years my own patience has worn thin. If Rosa and Chita are not released back into the care of their parents in the next two weeks, and if Citipointe does not provide the parents, LICADHO and myself with copies of agreements and/or contracts pertaining to the legality of its actions in mid-2008, I will be left with no choice but to move to Plan B – the details of which I will keep to myself for tactical reasons.

I trust that it will not be necessary to move to Plan B and that LICADHO, at least, will insist that Citipointe (1) Prove the legality of its actions in mind 2008 in removing Rosa and Chita and (2) Explain why it is, in August 2013, that the church continues to hold Rosa and Chita against the express wishes of their parents Chanti and Chhork when they are land and home owners and have an income as secure as (indeed more secure than) the majority of Cambodians.

My last letter to you was published on my other blog – one which received around 10 times as many visitors as my Citipointe blog:

Chanti was in Phnom Penh yesterday with Chhork and baby Poppy. They came to visit me. Whilst they were here they received a phone call from Citipointe staff to tell them they were at Chanti and Chhork’s home in Prey Veng, with Rosa and Chita – for a visit. As has happened before, it does not occur to Citipointe to check with Chanti and Chhork to see if they are at home or if the day and time of the visit is convenient. Chhork works as a tuk tuk driver and cannot simply stop work because Citipointe arrives with his daughters unannounced. The arrogance of Citipointe church never ceases to amaze me – the lack of sensitivity, the presumption that Chanti and Chhork will always be at home and that any old time that Citipointe decides to organize a visit will be OK with them.

You should give up ‘rescuing’ the children of poor parents, Leigh, and leave the job of helping families achieve self-sufficiency to NGOs that know what they are doing and treat families with respect.

best wishes

James Ricketson

Saturday, August 10, 2013


That Citipointe church stole the daughters of a poor Cambodian family is not a defamatory assertion. It is a statement of fact. A verifiable statement of fact. The circumstances surrounding the illegal removal of Rosa (aged 6) and Chita (aged 5) from their parents Chanti and Chhork five years ago is well documented on film and in a written blog record:

If Citipopinte believes my accusation to be defamatory, the church is free to sue me for defamation. Indeed, it has threatened to do on a few occasions this past five years.

Citipointe has not carried out its threats because fit knows that a court case held in Australia that relied on facts, on evidence (in the form of legal documents or the lack thereof) would reveal the church to be guilty as charged. 

In Cambodia,on the other hand, Citipointe can act with impunity, knowing full well that there is no government  body (and most certainly not the Ministry of Social Affairs!) no NGO (not even the country's leading human rights organisation, LICADHO) that will ask the church to produce evidence that it acted legally when it removed Rosa and Chita from their family five years ago contrary to the express wishes of their parents - Chanti and Chhork.
When it became apparent to the church that legal threats would not deter me from advocating on behalf of the parents for the return of their daughters, Citipointe's Pastor Brian Mulheran wrote me a letter in which the made the scarcely veiled threat that the church would have me arrested, charged, jailed and refused permission to visit Cambodia again if I did not cease and desist in my criticism of the church:
This attempt at intimidation did not work. 
My many attempts, over a period of five years now, to obtain the release of Rosa and Chita from the Christian institution in which they are incarcerated, have all failed. Whilst Cambodia is awash with NGOs committed to reusing  girls and women from the sex trade there is not one committed to rescuing girls from NGOs who trick poor, illiterate Cambodian parents into placing their daughters in temporary care, only to find that their children are now effectively 'owned' by the NGO in question such that the parents have few or any rights at all.

Unscrupulous NGOs can then exploit these children (as 'orphans' or 'victims of human trafficking') in order to raise money through donations and sponsorships - the donors and sponsors in Australia and elsewhere unaware that the children are not 'orphans' at all; that they are to 'victims of human trafficking'. Such scams are not only common in Cambodia but,through its collective silence, more or less endorsed by the local expatriate NGO community.

My latest letter to Senior Pastor Leigh Ramsay at Citipointe church speaks for itself: 

Leigh Ramsay
322 Wecker Road
QLD 4152

8th. August 2013

Dear Leigh

Chanti greeted me yesterday with the news that Rosa and Chita would be coming home to live with the family very soon. I asked Chanti how soon. Her brow creased with a frown and she said “Maybe one month, maybe two month.” Even Chanti’s hope that she will be reunited with her daughters is tempered these days by her experience of being lied to so often by yourself.

You have been making these kinds of promises to Chanti this for five years now, Leigh. I wonder if, on this occasion, there is any truth in your promise? Or if it is just another Leigh Ramsay lie to keep hope alive in Chanti and Chhork’s hearts?

If indeed Rosa and Chita are to be re-integrated with their family, what role does Citipointe see itself playing in the girls’ lives from here on in? Will the church be making any financial commitment at all to helping Rosa and Chita’s family for the next few years as it struggles to attain (and maintain) self-sufficiency?

In reality, Rosa and Chita’s family does not need much more in the way of financial support. It is very close to being self-sufficient. As you know, I have bought the family a home ($1,000), a tuk tuk ($1,500) and a block of land adjoining their home (for the growing of vegetables, chickens, ducks and pigs) for a further $1,400. It has cost me around $4,000 to make Chanti and Chhork’s family close to self-sufficient. I am sure that my financial assistance will be required in the future but it will, of necessity, be minimal.

What, by way of contrast, has Citipointe done to assist Chanti and Chhork’s family achieve self-sufficiency this past five years? The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not only has your church failed to provide any financial assistance at all (and I mean zero assistance), Citipointe has also exploited Chanti and the parents of other girls in the SHE refuge by paying her 25 cents to manufacture an artifact that the church sold online for $3. In addition to this, Citipointe has been exploiting Rosa and Chita by presenting them to donors and sponsors as victims of human trafficking when in reality, they are the victims of kidnapping by your church – a crime committed five years ago when you got Chanti to place her thumb print on a sham contract and then told her that she had signed her daughters into the care of Citipointe until they were 18 years old. A lie, of course. The contract contains no such condition and, even if it did, is not the kind of legal document upon which your church can claim to have a legal right to remove the daughters of a poor Cambodian family against the express wishes of their parents.

Citipointe revealed its true colours earlier this year when your church refused to provide any medical assistance to Chanti, 8 months pregnant and with pneumonia. Citipointe would not even contribute the $100 necessary for Chanti to receive treatment for the high fever (caused by the pneumonia) that threatened both mother and child in the final month of Chanti’s pregnancy. This callous disregard for Chanti and her soon-to-be born child’s well-being is indicative of your church’s attitude towards Chanti, towards Chhork and the family as a whole.

Nothing in Citipointe’s behavior surprises me at all anymore. Your church is devoid of the moral and ethical principles that you should, as Christians, carry into this poor third world country. If you were to behave in Australia as you do here you would be in court facing charges of deprivation of liberty, kidnapping or some other similar charges relating to the illegal removal of children from their poor families. You can behave as you do in Cambodia with impunity because there is no government body here to prevent your church from doing pretty much as it pleases. And because organizations such as Chab Dai and LICADHO turn a blind eye to human rights abuses perpetrated by Christian NGOs.

Given that Chanti and Chhork are land and home owners, (in Prey Veng), given that Chhork earns a decent living driving a tuk tuk, the only explanation I can come up with as to why the Ministry of Social Affairs does not insist that Rosa and Chita be returned to their family is either incompetence within the Ministry or corruption. Or perhaps a mixture of both. These girls were never ever victims of anything other than the illegal removal from the care of their parents by Citipointe church five years ago.

If Citipointe is serious about returning Rosa and Chita to their family, provide Chanti and Chhork with a timetable, in writing, and with an indication as to what, if anything, the church intends to do to assist the family into the future. If, as Rebecca Brewer made clear in writing five years ago, Citipointe intends to keep Rosa and Chita until they are 18, you should, in all fairness to Chanti and Chhork, tell them this and stop lying about the imminent return of the girls.

Yet again I ask you, on behalf of Chanti, to (a) provide documented evidence that you had the legal right to remove Rosa and Chita from their family’s care five years ago and (b) copies of documents (contracts and agreements with the Ministry of Social Affairs) relating to your church’s maintenance of custody of the girls against the express wishes of their parents.

best wishes

James Ricketson