Sometimes they explode too quickly ... children are getting burnt every night
As the sun sets over Ochheuteal beach, scores of children begin weaving their way through the cheap tables and cushioned chairs scattered in the sand in front of restaurants offering US$3 a plate barbecues and 50-cent beer to tourists.
But instead of selling sunglasses and bracelets the children offer to set off fireworks’ displays in the thin strip of white sand between the edge of the tables and the incoming tide, for tourists to watch or photograph while they drink and dine.
It’s a dangerous job, especially for a child, and the provincial government says it has been banned. “Children are not allowed to sell fireworks on beaches like Ochheuteal,” deputy governor Sboung Sarath said yesterday.
However, the ban is not being enforced and children have been getting burned, according to owners of beachside restaurants. Staff at NGOs working with children who sell trinkets on the beach say they have either heard reports of children suffering burns from fireworks or warn that accidents are bound to happen.
Ev Sao Sarin, director of M’lop Tapang, said children buy the fireworks in the town’s market, usually metre-long tubes called Roman candles that shoot multiple flashes about two to three metres in the air. They pay 2,000 to 3,000 riel (50 to 75 cents) for each tube, and sell them for about 5,000 riel apiece, he said.
“They are too little to handle fireworks,” he says. “It is dangerous because they do not know how to keep safe.”
Children also sell riskier types, including ground spinners and rockets, visits to the beach have found. When tourists pay them to place multiple shells in the sand, and then set off a fireworks’ display, the children have to carefully time the lighting of each shell so that the first does not go off before the last fuse is lit.
“Sometimes there are delays [in fireworks going off] and sometimes they explode too quickly,” Ev Sao Sarin said. “Children are getting burnt every night,” said Aiden Griffin, who works with the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project. The NGO provides children who work on the beach with an alternative to selling bracelets, sunglasses and fireworks. It assists their families and helps the children go to school.
He, along with staff at M’Lop Tabang, would like to see the fireworks business banned effectively by authorities.
But enforcing a ban when the provincial government appears to believe it is already in place may prove difficult. Restaurant owners, who asked not to be named, told The Post that the children were getting out of control. One said he had to use a stick to chase them away from customers.
Griffin said that this attitude was not universal, and that the owners and staff of some establishments were supportive of the children. He also disputed restaurant owner assertions that the number of children selling on the beach has risen. He says the number has plummeted over the past two years, partly due to the success of his NGO.
Despite its success, however, some of the children it helps are stealing. Last week a group stole a camera and $700 from tourists, Griffin said. The children were identified and police retrieved about $500 and the camera, he said. On Monday night, a group of children not associated with his organisation robbed another tourist of several hundred dollars, he said.
Maggie Eno, founder of M’Lop Tapang, agrees with the business owners who say the number of children selling on the beach has surged, and that it is becoming more dangerous. The organisation runs a hotline for children in distress and has two networks monitoring the beach: one has trained about 30 adult vendors in the Child Safe techniques developed by Friends International and another comprises of youths. The hotline receives from 80 to 100 calls a month, Eno says. Most of these report sick or injured children at the beach, or foreign tourists suspected of being paedophiles.
“The last two times I went to Ochheuteal I had to call our hotline myself,” Eno said, stressing that the beach was becoming unsafe for children and unpleasant for tourists. She estimates that the number of children selling on the beach has tripled over the last two years. M’lop Tabang itself has seen its caseload rise from 2,000 to about 3,000 children and youths during the same period, she says.
Eno welcomes a ban on children selling anything on the beach, saying it is too dangerous for them to be there unsupervised, and that they should be in school. She says some children are reluctant to leave the beach because they can make as much as $20 a day. “When our social workers try to convince them to go to school, they reply by saying they make twice as much as our [social workers] do,” she explains.
In the long term, however, the children grow up and tourists become less likely to buy bracelets and sunglasses from them. “By the time their 18 some can’t even get a job in a restaurant because they don’t know how to read and write,” Eno explains, adding that this puts them at a higher risk of becoming sex workers. Sihanoukville’s growth has been accompanied by a surge in the number of prostitution-related establishments, many just a stone’s throw from Ochheuteal beach where children who should be in school are working double shifts: selling bracelets by day and fireworks at night.