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 Jewish Humanitarian Group Visits Phnom Penh

by Edward Ordman   (March 6, 2005)

      [ Warning to the reader:  This is not entirely my usual sweetly reasonable writing style, as it touches on the Cambodia Genocide of Pol Pot and on the issue of sex trafficking.  The material is a bit hard to deal with and at this time, it should be regarded as a rough draft.]

      (Edward and Eunice Ordman, of Memphis, TN, joined a Jewish delegation visiting Southeast Asia in February 2005. This is one of a series of reports.)

      Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was somehow never on the list of places I had planned to visit.  But my wife suggested that a we join a group of travelers to Southeast Asia organized by American Jewish World Service, a humanitarian group headquartered in New York, and there we were, in mid-February 2005.

        The purpose of the  trip was to visit a variety of local charities receiving grants from AJWS, and that is how we spent most of our time.  But one side trip in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, seemed unavoidable.  Our group visited the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.

       In 1975, a group of the communist Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh and governed Cambodia for four years.  During this time they systematically murdered and starved a large percentage of the people of Cambodia, with a special effort to kill off anyone educated. By most estimates, over one million people died, out of a Cambodian population estimated at seven million at the time. Approximately another million left the country.  The result has been traumatic for Cambodia:  even today, less than half the population is literate.

        The Museum is located in a former school that was converted into a prison and execution ground during the Pol Pot period.  Of some 14,200 people known to have been imprisoned here, only seven are known to have survived. Visiting the original prison, and seeing the remarkable and systematic records kept by the Khmer Rouge, including photos of the dead and written confessions extracted before the executions, was a deeply moving experience.

(There is a lot about this on the web. A small dose may be found at
http://www.chgs.umn.edu/Visual___Artistic_Resources/Cambodian_Genocide/cambodian_genocide.html   )

       While the killings in Cambodia were self-inflicted, committed by one group of Cambodians upon another, it is hardly surprising that the Cambodians look to the European Holocaust when trying to understand this national tragedy. While we were in Phnom Penh, the Museum had an exhibit of paintings and drawings made by children of the Terezienstadt concentration camp, and was showing a Czech television production, “Brundibar”, based on a children’s opera produced by Jewish children at the camp.

      “Brundibar” was receiving more than usual press coverage in Cambodia for an unusual reason: the present King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni (a son of former King Norodom Sihanouk)  acted in the television production. This happened when he was a student in Prague,  in 1967.  While I’ve met people who have an interest in Jewish history in some unexpected places, this is one of the most unusual connections I have encountered!

         Following the visit to the museum, the group went on to visit some organizations which American Jewish World Service works with in Phnom Penh.  COSECAM   (the Coalition to Address Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia) is an organization of Cambodian nongovernmental groups which work to prevent exploitation of children, provide protection and rehabilitation to victims of child abuse, and advocate for legal and judicial reform.  This is a difficult task in a country which is only beginning to develop a responsible police and judicial system.  The widespread illiteracy and lack of trust in government, developed over some decades, also make the task difficult.   
       One event illustrating the problem in Cambodia was playing out exactly while our group was there, with some emotional consequences for us.  The local culture tended to abuse of women and children, and to rape and prostitution, even before Westerners arrived on the scene; the arrival of Westerners made it an even bigger business.  The frequency of sale of children and young women for sex is made more common by the dreadful state of the Cambodian economy. In many areas of Southeast Asia, the local culture is unsympathetic to victims: we heard reports of a women who was raped, whose husband then divorced her and threw her out of the house. Women who have been victimized often feel that returning to their home or home community is not an option.       

       A few weeks before our arrival, police raided a large hotel operated as a brothel.  Many women were removed and taken to a shelter.  Some days later, they were back in the brothel. Workmen across from the shelter, according to a local newspaper,  reported that a group of men had raided the shelter, broken down the gate, and taken away the women. At least one of the cars those men drove, according to the newspaper report, had police license plates.

      A government investigation, completed while our group was in Phnom Penh, said it found no evidence that men had raided the shelter.  The government report said the women had broken out of the shelter on their own, and returned to the brothel voluntarily.  The government report denied that some of the women were as young as 12; it said they were all of legal age, but deliberately tried to appear as young as possible.

         Our group was addressed by (name omitted pending confirmation), working for a local United Nations agency office. He said, that if we hadn’t heard  similar dreadful stories from other countries in the area, it was for a simple reason: in the other countries, the attempted rescue from the brothel would never have happened.  The operation seemed a failure, he said - but the remarkable news was that the initial effort was made.  You can’t succeed if you don’t try; elements of the Cambodian government were trying, and deserved credit.  With repeated efforts, other government offices would come on board, and progress would be made.

        One of the local groups represented in COSECAM arranged for the AJWS group to meet with some women who had been sold, as children.  These women had typically been illiterate, and assumed like others in their situation that they would be condemned and rejected because of what had happened to them.  Given their poor backgrounds, it seemed a long way from where they were to a hopeful future: the first stage might be a very simple sewing job, which in a government garment factory might at first earn them as little as 50 cents a day - scarcely enough for food.    

       One area in which AJWS has had considerable success, not just in Cambodia, is in assisting local groups to work together. AJWS feels that it should not be coming in and saying “here is how to solve the problem”.  By finding local people with good ideas, and allowing them to meet and compare suggestions (sometimes on a regional, national, or even international level), good ideas may arise and be accepted that would not have occurred to a western “expert” unfamiliar with local conditions.

          The next day we met with Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development, an organization working largely with the urban poor, and our group was able to visit both its offices and its project sites in poor neighborhoods in and near Phnom Penh.  This group offers sewing courses that allow graduates to engage in skilled sewing, at considerably higher pay than they would get in the government-run garment factories. It teaches literacy courses and also teaches the skills needed for computer data entry jobs, which are (for Cambodia) relatively highly paid.  The courses also cover such concepts as community volunteerism, health, civic education, human rights, environmental awareness, family planning, saving schemes, and other self-help skills.

        The problems of Cambodia are especially difficult. AJWS feels  that the Jewish mission of “tikkun olam”, repairing the world, applies wherever in the world there is extreme need.  This trip was, in part, a way of showing the travel group a sampler of some of those needs.  It also provided a way for AJWS to show its overseas partners what some Jews in America, who care about the quality of the lives of those in need, are actually like.   

       After some very full and emotional days in Phnom Penh, our group moved on to northern Thailand.  That report will follow.               

Edward Ordman

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