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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tourism officials quit ministry to run adoption business

Tourism officials quit ministry to run adoption business

baby.jpg
baby.jpg

Twins waiting for adoption at the AOA orphanage near Pochentong

T

HE Asian Orphanage Association (AOA), a Phnom Penh adoption center opened last year

by suspected baby-traffickers, and now run by two former Tourism Ministry officials,

is providing babies for foreign adoptions.

The AOA, located in Kok Prich, a village near Pochentong Airport, started operations

last December. According to villagers living near AOA, it was started by Tith Von,

the manager of another adoption center, Women and Orphan Vocational Association (WOVA),

in partnership with a taxi driver, Soeng Mon.

Investigations by a human rights NGO and the Post have linked Von directly with buying

Cambodian babies to supply American adoption agencies (Post. May 26, 2000). And the

39-year-old taxi driver, Mon, was detained by police on suspicion of baby trafficking

on August 23, 1999.

Mon and a woman he employed, Hem Sokdavy, 29, were both detained after police received

a complaint by a mother who had sold her three-year-old daughter, Srey Noch, to Sokdavy.

The mother told investigators that she initially sold her daughter for $40, but then

received an extra $10. After the sale, the mother wanted to see her daughter again

but Sokdavy told her she could only see the baby if she repurchased her. The mother

filed a complaint and police detained Sokdavy.

When Sokvady was taken to the Tonle Bassac police station, she showed police a contract

for the purchase of the baby and insisted it was a "legal" transaction.

Sokvady told police she worked for Mon, who she described as a taxi driver who acquired

babies for an organization she could not name.

Later that same day Mon was taken into custody on suspicion of baby trafficking.

According to investigators, about midnight on August 8, high-ranking officials from

the Ministry of Interior came to the police station to demand the release of Mon

and Sokvady. They were set free the following morning.

Human rights investigators say Mon still operates a taxi outside Phnom Penh's Sunway

Hotel - where clients of several American adoption agencies stay while completing

adoption procedures in Cambodia. After his release, investigators discovered Mon

also worked for WOVA.

Villagers near AOA told investigators that when Von and Mon first began construction,

they were told a health center was being built. They were surprised to learn later

that it was an orphanage. They were told by Von and Mon that they fed babies from

poor families at AOA, and if the babies were lucky, they would be adopted by wealthy

foreign families.

Investigators learned from the villagers that Von and Mon sold AOA early this year.

The new owners of AOA - Director Serey Puth and Manager Yoso Khan - are both former

officials for the Ministry of Tourism.

The Post interviewed Khan at AOA. "My country is very poor and the number of

orphans are growing so I want to help the Government," said Khan, explaining

that he and his partner quit the Ministry of Tourism to operate an orphanage.

Khan said all the babies at AOA come from hospitals in the Phnom Penh area. He said

they are brought to AOA by hospital staff after being checked that they are HIV free.

He said the babies are voluntarily given to AOA by poor families who cannot afford

to look after their children.

When the babies are given to AOA their families are given no more than 20,000 riel,

Khan said.

"Because of my Buddhist beliefs, I give a donation to the parents.

"The babies' real parents are happier if they think the baby might be adopted

to foreign families," said Khan. But he claimed not to know how many babies

get adopted or what countries they are sent. "Everything I don't know,"

he said.

But investigators learned from nannies working at AOA that the parents are offered

$50 to $60 for their babies. The parents are told the money is to help them, and

they are instructed never to return to the orphanage.

Investigators were told about a scene outside AOA, witnessed by many villagers, where

a distraught mother who had sold her baby to AOA was told she would never see her

child again.

The woman was from Battambang, villagers said. She had come to Phnom Penh because

her husband needed medical treatment. While he was receiving the treatment she gave

birth. They were a poor family and she could not afford to pay for her husband's

hospitalization as well as feed the baby.

The mother learned she could sell the baby to AOA. Shortly after the baby's sale

her husband recovered, so she went back to the orphanage to retrieve the baby. She

said she had lied to her husband, telling him their first-born child was being cared

for at someone's house.

AOA staff told her she could not take the baby back, nor could she get a job at the

center to be near her child. Villagers said the mother cried hysterically, saying

her husband would kill her. In the end she was given 60,000 riel and threatened that

if she did not leave immediately the police would be called.

Khan told the Post that although the babies are adopted by foreign families, AOA

receives no money from those families. Khan said he and Puth fund the orphanage out

of their own pockets without any outside assistance in meeting AOA's $2,000 a month

operating costs.

Khan said although meeting these expenses was very difficult, he is constructing

three new buildings that will house another 45 babies. Khan said he also planned

to build a school for the children. At present, AOA hires 25 nannies to feed and

care for the babies while they await adoption.

When asked by the Post why AOA needed a school for babies, Khan said he expected

some of the babies might not be adopted and will have to be raised there. "My

aim is to support the children so they grow up healthy and to provide them an education,"

he said.

Khan was aware that the Government had announced a suspension of foreign adoption

from Cambodia, but he said he had no opinions on the matter.

"I suspected journalists would come to meet me after I read the story in the

Post," he said. "But from now on I will not allow any journalist to come

to meet me unless they have permission. I plan to build a guard house and a big fence

at the entrance of the center so people cannot just come in without permission."

But he said he would be more welcoming to an NGO interested in supporting AOA. "I

suggest you find someone to support my orphanage," Khan told the Post. "I

will be very happy."

The director of AOA, Serey Puth, could not be contacted because of family bereavement.

Nim Thoth, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), said because

of problems in Cambodia's adoption procedures, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the

suspension of foreign adoptions on May 26. (This was the day the Post published the

report Babies bought for sale to foreigners.)

Thoth said although the suspension will not go into effect till June 15, he has been

informed that adoption centers are already refusing to accept new babies. Thoth told

the Post he has since ordered all centers to take in abandoned babies.

The Council of Ministers, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MoSA held a meeting to

discuss a new adoption subdecree which Thoth expects will be passed some time in

the next three months.

Thoth said MoSA will investigate adoption centers in the wake of stories published

about irregularities in Cambodia's adoption process.

MoSA will check which babies are orphans, abandoned, or voluntarily given to the

orphanages by their parents. He said centers will have to give parents three months

to change their minds before making the babies available for adoption.

Centers will be required to have a witness from the police, or commune and village

chiefs, to vouch that the babies are really orphaned or abandoned, said Thoth. He

said it was likely that the Government will streamline the bureaucratic process for

foreign adoptions and suggested that in the future, foreign adoption agency involvement

will be limited.

Thoth acknowledged that not all civil servants working for the Government were honest,

but said he thought corruption in his ministry was minimal.

"Government officials have been publicly accused of baby-trafficking. But when

I investigated the case I found no evidence of this," he said, adding that MoSA

will punish any officials who receive bribes or are involved in baby-trafficking.

Thoth said he discovered some adoption centers receive money from foreign adoptive

parents when they see the sick, skinny babies, but the money is used only to buy

milk or medicine.

However, two American adoption agencies operating in Cambodia, Seattle International

Adoption and Hawaii International Child, tell their clients that there is a set donation

fee of $3,500 to be given to the adoption centers where they source their babies.

Both these agencies obtain babies from WOVA.

Cambodia has a lot of orphans and needs the support from local and foreign NGOs,

said Thoth, adding that the Government would like to encourage the adoption of babies

with disabilities or HIV.

"Life is better for the Cambodian babies who get adopted by foreigners, because

those countries have democracy and they respect human rights - especially the rights

of children," Thoth said.

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