Inside Cambodia’s Roughest Rehabs

By Nathan A Thompson 08/03/15

In Cambodia, “undesirable citizens” are periodically removed from the capital, Phnom Penh. Drug users are among the targeted.

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Nathan A Thompson

On a muggy night in Phnom Penh, neon bar signs blaze like the eyeball veins of a meth-head, wild with lack of sleep casting a faint glow on the cheeks of a man, mid-fifties, beer-gutted and wearing sandals. He tosses a couple of keys on a ring. They catch the streetlight as they arc, making that unmistakable tinkling sound. San Sophos catches. “The bike’s yours babe,” the man says gesturing at the shiny 110cc Honda.   

For Sophos, the bargirl, it’s just another gift from a client. She’s beautiful. Brown skin, chopstick-thin with long dark hair that shines as if varnished. Sophos isn’t a prostitute, she’s a free agent, making her living selling the “girlfriend experience” to lonely men. 

You wouldn’t know it today though. She’s only 32—still young enough to ply her trade—but her hair is matted and wild, she wears filthy jeans and a plaid shirt several sizes too big. Her eyes bug out and her grin is lopsided. Methamphetamine—Cambodia’s most widely used drug—is cruel. Sophos looks away, remembering her former life, “I was very beautiful and had many clients,” she says, speaking English. “They bought me jewelry, mobile phones, motorbikes…everything.”

Her charm remains, though obscured by addiction, like tattered curtains obscure the view of a verdant garden. She’s sitting in a room at Korsang, a Cambodian NGO that provides aid to drug users. One of several people being interviewed about their involuntary detention in Phnom Penh’s Orkas Knhom (“My Chance” in English) rehab. By all accounts the rehab would be more recognizable to Solzhenitsyn than Betty Ford. 

In Cambodia, “undesirable citizens” are periodically removed from the capital, Phnom Penh. Usually before a festival or a visit from a foreign dignitary. Drug users, sex workers and mentally ill people are targeted. They are detained with no legal recourse for periods of around three to six months, though some reports mention years of illegal imprisonment. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report 22% are under 18 and over 9% are under 16.  

“Every day the guards made me exercise until I collapsed from exhaustion,” says Sophos. “But I had to get up again or they would beat me.” She was lucky. After proving that she was Korsang’s client and receiving methadone, they let her go. Others were not so lucky. 

Sok San, a thin man of indeterminate age, was detained at Orkas Knhom earlier this year. “Because I live on the streets and have no money the guards forced me to work,” he says, looking at the ground, shrinking into his oversized coat. “They beat us with whatever they found lying around: a belt, branch or stick; they said I was lazy and I had to do whatever they said.” 

Their claims are backed up by the HRW and several other organizations who have denounced the rehabs as being abusive, ineffective and tantamount to torture. After editing two scathing reports on the situation in recent years, Joseph Amon, Health and Human Rights director at HRW, remains adamant. “All compulsory drug detention centers in Cambodia should be immediately closed,” he says. “This is not just my opinion, this is the view of 12 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which have recognized these centers as ineffective and inhumane.”

Vutay walks fast down the thin, heat-wobbling roads. Inside his pocket he pinches the bundle of notes totaling 20,000 Riel ($5) into a small wad. Feeling the soft bundle between his fingertips causes an insatiable buzz in his chest. He has it. Enough money for a hit of “white” - heroin. Soon he would feel that beautiful rush. 

Rounding a corner, he notices an ominous presence brooding down the street – a police van. In the back are men, women and children hanging their heads, handcuffed to two rough wooden benches. Vutay turns to bolt. But an iron grip seizes his arm. “We know you,” says a tough voice. “We know you’re going to buy drugs.” 

“But I don’t have any drugs,” Vutay’s protests are ignored. Metal bracelets clip around his wrists, attaching him to a chain running beneath the benches on the back of the truck. There’s no shade. The merciless sun beats down on his neck. There will be no legal recourse for Vutay. He’s outside the Cambodian justice system, in a Kafkaesque space where no one hears you scream. 

As the setting sun drenches the sky in pink and orange, Vutay and a few dozen other “undesirables” wait in a carpark behind a government building. In the twilight they cut thin shadows. Fleeting figures – ephemeral as mayflies. An official comes with a clipboard. A few of the women and children are released into the custody of family members or NGOs like Korsang. Everyone else is taken to Orkas Knhom or similar centers. “They don’t want tourists to see vagrants or drug users,” Vutay explains. “It makes the city look bad so that’s why they pick us up.” 

It’s 10am on Vutay’s first day. His muscles aching from military-style exercise drills, he and the other inmates form a dejected huddle in the courtyard. A team leader approaches. Team leaders are inmates who have been chosen by the guards to keep order and discipline. They operate with impunity and have been accused of the most appalling abuse, from capricious beatings to forcing inmates to perform sex acts. “It doesn’t matter what they do,” he says. “The guards will never hear a complaint.”  

The team leader silently cuts the group in two. He shoves Vutay and the other street people to one side. The other group are better dressed and their skin less blackened by the sun. They are the wayward youth detained at the request of their families at the cost of up to $150 per month (the average monthly wage in Cambodia is roughly $200). The paying inmates are allowed to rest. Vutay and the rest are forced to work in the sweltering fields. 

Families send drug-addicted members to Orkas Knhom in the hope that it will cure their addiction. But with local press reporting relapse rates between 85 and 95%, they are in for disappointment. “Many parents are uninformed about the risks and dangers from drug use and dependency and how it can be addressed,” says Amon. “They do not have accurate information or real alternatives.” 

“Orkas Knhom is a temporary center where drug users can detox, have some education and train in new skills,” says Meas Vyrith, head of Cambodia’s National Authority for Combatting Drugs. “We don’t keep it like a prison, we want to help people.” The minister dismisses allegations of abuse. “We don’t allow people at the center to beat each other,” he says. “Critics get their information from drug users but they are not reliable sources of information.” 

The amount of abuse inmates suffer at Orkas Knhom depends on their ability to pay, according to former inmates. Richer inmates can afford to “live like kings” and treat poorer inmates like servants. But Vyrith denies that this is coercive. “When people live in the center they agree to exchange money for massage or cleaning services with each other,” he says. 

Massage services can become sexual abuse. “I saw it once in the dormitory,” says Sok San. “A team leader thought someone was gay so he forced him to give oral sex.” Human Rights Watch has reported numerous other instances of sexual abuse at Orkas Knhom and other rehab centres. 

Driving through Phnom Penh’s dusty hinterlands there are no signs for Orkas Knhom. The address given in the Cambodian Yellow Pages doesn’t appear to exist. A boy living in a local village knows the way. He has leads, wielding a decaying motorbike over bumpy dirt roads. 

“No picture, no picture,” rage two guards outside Orkas Knhom’s 10-foot iron gate. The surrounding wall is high and garnished with barbed wire. Access will be impossible. Sure, there is the possibility of arranging an official visit but that would be a pantomime. “When journalists come they tell you not to say anything,” says Sok San. “If you say anything they beat you.”

Walking away, I swing around and snap a shot. There is a cry of outrage from the men. Before I can slide the keys into the ignition of my motorcycle, one of them has my fist and is trying to prise my keys away. His colleague is making alarming sounds into a walkie talkie. 

“I’m a journalist, journalist,” I insist in Khmer, holding onto my keys. It must register because the man halves his efforts at holding me, allowing me to escape in a cloud of dust. All that can be concluded from this unpleasant episode is that the NACD go to a lot of effort to hide their philanthropic efforts to “detox, educate and train” drug users.  

However, there are positive changes that the Cambodian government are happy to share with the press. Methadone maintenance has been available in Phnom Penh since 2010. While chronically underfunded, the program has allowed Sophos and others like her to stabilize enough to find casual labor. 

As for methamphetamine abuse, a nascent community-based treatment program (CBTx) was launched in Phnom Penh last year after a successful pilot program in Banteay Meanchey in the north of the country. These changes could signal the start of a sea change away from forced rehabs. Indeed, at the time of writing, Vyrith and a team from the NACD are on a fact-finding mission in neighboring Thailand where CBTx has been used by the criminal justice system for nearly 20 years.  

But there is a long way to go before Sophos, Vutay and Sok San can walk the streets unafraid of sudden, arbitrary incarceration in horror shows like Orkas Knhom. “In order for CBTx to be effective the government should involve NGOs who work with drug users in the program,” says Tiang Phoeuk, executive director of Korsang. “CBTx needs to include housing, vocational training, loans, job placement and reintegration plan for the drug users.” The program is not ready to offer that yet. It doesn’t look like the spiked walls of Cambodia’s forced rehabs will be coming down anytime soon.

(Parts of this story would not have been possible without the help of Richard Pearshouse, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch.)

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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Nathan A. Thompson is the president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, where he has been based since 2013. He has reported for VICE News, the TelegraphGuardianSlateSalonand Christian Science Monitor both in Cambodia and across the region and currently works in editorial at ucanews.com. He writes travel articles, essays and released his first poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong Only Lightning in 2016. Follow Nathan on Twitter.

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