Thursday, October 31, 2013

LICADHO and SISHA powerless to help Chanti and Chhork get their daughters back from Citipointe church

James, Kevin and Srey Ka
Chanti and Chhork tell me that a month or so ago LICADHO spoke with their local Prey Veng Village Chief (Chhork’s father) and Commune chief (Chhork’s uncle); that both had told LICADHO, whilst the family was poor, Chanti and Chhork could provide a good home for Rosa and Chita.

If nothing has been lost in translation here, why are Rosa and Chita still in the care of Citipointe church? (That Chhork’s father and uncle hold significant positions in the community should give some indication of the kind of family network that has been available to Chanti and Chhork this past five years – a family network that Citipointe has never once attempted to tap into. Likewise, Citipointe has never met nor made any attempt to meet and talk with either Chanti and Chhork’s Village of Commune Chiefs! Indeed, Citipointe did not bother to consult with them, as is customary, before taking Rosa and Chita into care in 2008. The problem here is not just Citipointe’s contempt for Cambodian law and natural justice but that there is no-one, no body, in a position to force the church to be transparent, accountable and to obey the law.

Chhork and Poppy, James, Kevin and Srey K
Chanti and Chhork also tell me that a meeting had been held a few weeks ago at which staff from LICADHO and Citipointe church were present. Chanti and Chhork were not invited to attend the meeting to discuss their own daughters. Nor was I invited, despite my being Chanti’s legally appointed Advocate – as both Citipointe and LICADHO are aware. If such a meeting occurred why was I neither informed nor invited? More importantly, why should LICADHO and Citipointe be discussing the future of Rosa and Chita without their parents being present? They are not criminals, they have done nothing wrong, there has never been any suggestion that they have ever done anything to harm their children or that they would ever do so. I expect this form of paternalism from Citipointe, as the church acts as if it owns Rosa and Chita, but for LICADHO not to invite the parents to such an important meeting is totally inappropriate behavior for a human rights NGO.

I suspect that the reason why neither Chanti and Chhork nor myself were invited (at least as far as Citipoint is concerned) is that if we were present it would be very hard for Citipointe to tell the sorts of lies the church has told this past five years to justify its actions. Citipointe knows that I have evidence of its lies and the last thing the church would want is for me to produce it in a meeting such as the one that seems to have occurred. (The Ministry of the Interior’s ‘Anti Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department’ refused to allow me to present to it the evidence I had of Rosa and Chita’s illegal removal.)

Kevin, Chanti and Srey Ka

It is abundantly clearly that neither LICADHO, SISHA is in a position to help Chanti and Chhork get their children back, regardless of their best intentions. I do not doubt that both NGOs wish to assist but the simple truth, in Cambodia in 2013, is that both are powerless to do anything. They simply cannot compete with whatever forces are in play here that enable Citipointe to effectively kidnap the children of poor Cambodian parents and keep them for as long as they please. I suspect that it will only be when the entire NGO community in Cambodia says “Enough is enough” and begins to publicly disassociate itself from unscrupulous NGOs that such NGOs will be under pressure to either leaver Cambodia or to reform their practices such that they become accountable for their actions.

On the surface it might appear that I have wasted my time this past five years trying to get Rosa and Chita returned to their family through any and every avenue open to me. The one avenue I did not explore was finding the right person to bribe to see to it that the family was re-united. On several occasions Chanti told me that the police wanted to speak with me, that they wanted money from me. I refused each time and never did find out which police she was referring to. With the wisdom of hindsight it might have been preferable if I had paid whatever bribe needed to be paid all of those years ago. It certainly would have saved a lot of time and energy. And, more importantly, a lot of heartache for Chanti and Chhork.

Chanti and Chhork’s problems this past six or so weeks, without a tuk tuk, have been confounded by both the weather (floods) and Chanti’s mother, Vanna. I had sent Chanti and Chhork money from Australia to get their tuk tuk back. Chanti’s mother, Vanna, asked Chanti to give her the money. Chanti did so. When I asked Chanti why she replied, “My mother gave me my life, I cannot say no.” Vanna then gave the money to her own mother – no doubt with the same justification in mind: “She gave me my life, how can I say no?” This is not the first time that such a problem has arisen and perhaps will not be the last – though I have made any further monetary help for the family conditional on none of the money being given to Vanna – regardless of any entreaties she may make to Chanti.

Chanti, Poppy and Srey Ka

On closer investigation this past week I discovered that the debt Chanti owes to the moneylender, the debt that resulted in the money lender stealing the family tuk tuk, dates back more than a decade. Most of the debt is interest accrued over 10 or so years. I again suggested to Chanti that we go to the police and report what amounts to theft. She shook her head and was quite adamant that we should not as the police are corrupt.  Indeed, much of the debt Chanti had built up all those years ago was the result of paying bribes to the police when she was selling snacks and drinks in a stall down by the river. Technically, running such a stall was illegal even 10 years ago, but all of the stall holders paid the police not to arrest them. And if the stall holders could not afford to pay the bribes they had to borrow money.

The loss of the family tuk tuk – the family’s main source of income  - pitched Chanti into deep despair. On top of this, the family home and the surroundings have been under water during the recent floods and two of her children have been ill. These problems have been exacerbated by the lack of a toilet. And where has Citipointe been during all this? Absent, as usual. As always. The church has done nothing this past five years to help Chanti and her family and never will. Doing nothing to alleviate Chanti’s poverty is one way the church can ensure that it can retain custody of Rosa and Chita until they are 18. That this state of affairs is tolerated by the NGO community is a sorry state of affairs.

I have bought Chanti and Chhork another tuk tuk so at least one of their problems has been resolved. Chhork is now able to earn rough $30 a week with the tuk tuk – an income supplemented by Chanti’s chickens, pigs and vegetables. Theirs is still a poor family but no poorer than the majority of Cambodian families. And, unlike most Cambodian families, this one has a safety net if disaster strikes – namely myself.

Neither the clear evidence of Rosa and Chita’s illegal removal five years ago nor Chanti and Chhork’s clear ability to take care of their daughters in 2013 is sufficient to result in their return to the family home. Nor are these demonstrably true facts sufficient to induce other NGOs or the Cambodian English language media to speak out or, at the very least, to ask questions of Citipointe in a public forum. These questions apply not only to Citipointe, of course, but to all those NGOs that play fast and loose with the truth  in order to boost their sponsorship and donor earnings; all those NGOs that, even with the best of intentions, are exploiting poor Cambodian families in pursuit of their own agendas.


When I complete CHANTI’S WORLD, the very first monies I earn from the film, will go to engaging lawyers in both Australia and Cambodia to sue Citipointe for the church’s illegal removal of Rosa and Chita back in mid 2008. In the event that I am successful, through either court, in exposing Citipointe’s clear breaches of both Cambodian and Australian law of Rosa and Chita in 2008, in the event that Rosa and Chita are returned to the care of their parents, Citipointe will simply have to find two other young girls from an impoverished family to ‘rescue’ and then exploit to raise money for the church. And all this will happen with the tacit approval of an NGO community that chooses to remain silent on the human rights abuses that it knows to occur within it.


I can only hope that one day the Cambodian people will way, “Enough, we are no longer prepared to have our children used by foreign NGOs to raise money. If you wish to help us, help our poor families, help our struggling communities, do not  take our children away from us and then make it seem as if you are doing us a huge favour.”


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