Social and Pastoral BulletinNo. 88Feb. 15, 1999


A Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you!

My dear friends,
I hope this Christmas letter finds you well and happy. This year I stayed in Cambodia all year, except for the month of July when I went to Japan to give talks about Cambodia. "Life is hard" for the people of Cambodia.
Life is Cheap…

Firstly, I would like to share one incident with you. A 16-year old boy (in a wheelchair) who had both legs amputated, had been suffering from asthma for a long time; however his mother could not afford to take him to a clinic. One of our Khmer staff members went to his village and saw the boy suffering a lot. Therefore, he asked the boy to come to our center one Saturday morning in order to take him to the dispensary run by the Sisters of Charity. I went with them by van. The boy seemed to have a hard time breathing. After arriving at the dispensary, the boy was immediately treated and received some medicine. While waiting outside for the other patients to be treated, he fell out of the wheelchair.

He shouted loudly, "I am going to die." Sr. M. laid the boy on the floor to ease his pain. I helped Sr. M. to fan him for a while without knowing he had quietly and quickly passed away.
This was my first experience to be present at the moment of someone's death. Afterwards, I heard that his mother hated him because he was handicapped and even chained him to make him work, wash clothes, etc. His death was a blessing, and he finally could rest in peace. This is not the end of the story. When the boy left home for the dispensary he was alive, he came back dead. How can ordinary Cambodian people understand this? They might say, "If he had not gone to the dispensary, he would have lived." A few NGOs have been sued because of similar cases. Sometimes parents do not want their sick or handicapped children to live long, therefore they do not take their children even to a free clinic. In the meantime NGOs try to help the children. NGOs are doing a favor to the parents to keep their children alive. Although sick and/or handicapped children are innocent, they are treated badly in this society. "Life is cheap here."

People's Real Life in Rural Areas
For two months and a half, while I was in the city of Battambang, four of us rode on two motorbikes to the R district office on the road to Pailin. The place was 35 km away, and it usually took us one hour and fifteen minutes. For the first week, I suffered bottom ache from just sitting on the back of the motorbike because the road was bad with lots of holes.

At the district-office we took an ox-cart to P village, 3 km (30 minutes), away, and from there, a cart drawn by a big tractor to a village 10km away with a security guard, for one more hour. During the rainy season we could not use motorbikes at all, because of bad muddy roads, in addition to occasional robberies. There are still lots of landmines along the road to the last village. Why do people live in such remote areas? They ran away from their land when the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) came into that area. Now 30 years later, they returned to their land to find their houses and rice fields totally destroyed. All that was left were lots of landmines. Therefore, they had to go farther into jungles to find a place where they cut trees to build huts and clear the land to plant rice. Those people have literally nothing. We set up there a "work for food." project. The villagers make roads, clear the land for rice, and make ponds to keep water for daily use and irrigation. We provide them "rice" for their work and built them a school, too. If a child comes to the school, s/he gets 20 kg of rice a month.
Teachers get $10 plus 30 kg of rice a month. About 50% of male and 80% of female adults can not read and write their own language. Therefore, we set up literacy classes for adults, too. They also get 20 kg of rice a month. Imagine, one gets "paid" when one learns! Education is not their priority. The average years of education for teachers is 8 years. Some teachers have no formal schooling, but they teach because they can read and write. The monthly income for public school teachers is about $20. However, up to now, they have not yet received any salary from the government, so they set up one extra hour of class after the regular 3 hours of class, a day, and ask each student to bring 100 Riel, or less than 3 cents ($1=3888 Riel), a day. About 80% of the people in Cambodia have no regular cash income. There are 6 to 7 children per family. Teachers have to survive, too!

One time five of us drove a 4-wheel double cab from Sisophone to Siem Reap. It is a distance of 90 km, but it took us 9 hours. A visitor tried to smoke in the car, but the "national" road was so bad that he could not even put his cigarette into his mouth. Half of the bridges are badly damaged. Some places have no bridges, therefore we had to drive in the river. Along theroad there are several temporary check points where policemen collect money for themselves.

Who can survive with $20 a month with 6 or 7 children? Although it takes only 15 minutes by plane, once I took a boat from Battambang to Siem Reap for 7 hours. I felt happy to see life on the water.

Why Do They Have to Suffer?
How are UN International organizations helping Cambodia? They could help better, but they, too, have their own bureaucratic obstacles. For the July 26 elections, UN and international organizations sent many foreign observers and spent lots of money. One newspaper said, "International observers who described the vote as generally "free and fair" are falling down on the job by failing to supervise the National Election Committee's current checking of the ballots. They are spending more time going to wine and cheese parties, congratulating themselves on a job well done, than watching the ballot bag."

Sixty percent of the Cambodian national budget comes from donations of foreign countries. And forty-three percent of the national budget is used for the military and the police. Hun Sen himself has more than 6000 private bodyguards. People say that, not only in the periods of Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Puppet regimes, but also since Hun Sen came to power, gross human rights violations have occurred, including the last July executions after the "coup d'etat" of 1997 and the "violent crackdown" on opposition demonstrators, after July 26 elections in 1998. If Hun Sen is not good, then, who would be a good leader? No one seems to be. This is the problem here.
The first time I went to a village, 20 km from Phnom Penh, I thought I had seen the poorest of the poor. Then I visited other villages in Siem Reap, and I realized they were poorer than the first one. The villages of Battambang I visit now I think are the poorest of the poor. A few villagers have already died of starvation. It means that, I have not yet seen the bottom of poverty of the poorest in Cambodia.

Why do they have to suffer so much? Why is Cambodia so poor? Is it only because Cambodia has been at war for the last 30 or 40 years? How could the people in Cambodia remain rice farmers for the last 500 or 600 years, happy to have enough rice to eat? Historically speaking, Cambodia consists of 5% elite and 95% illiterate rice farmers.

Ms. Hiroko(second right,behind) with landmine victim, Tun Channareth and his family in Siem reap, Combodia
What Can We Do?

Sometimes I ask myself, "How can I live here without any convenience, security and sanitation?" It is a fact that 20% of the population in the world has access to 80% of the world wealth. Therefore, I do not live in hardship but I just do, normally, as the other 80% of the population in the world do.

What can we buy with $4.00 here? We can feed 25 young boys (ages 8-20) excluding the cost of rice. Actually, we do it everyday. The boys are so happy to have enough rice to eat twice a day.

Why aren't we happy all the time? We have three meals a day, our country is not at war, we have nice roads for cars. We must do more for the poor.

Lastly, I am fine and happy to be here. I am too old lo learn the Khmer language, but I am trying, trying, trying...
Have a wonderful Christmas holiday
Cambodia, Christmas 1998
Once I work away from Phnom Penh, I have no access to any telephone, fax machine, and so forth. Today I went to a shop nearby to type this letter to you. Life is simple here.