A newborn baby girl who didn’t even have a name yet was taken out of her hospital on Wednesday morning and buried alive allegedly by her father because he couldn’t bear the sight of her cleft lip.
The baby was born at 3am on Wednesday at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, according to medical staff. Sometime later that morning, Kong Sok, a 29-year-old Svay Rieng town farmer, took his unwanted daughter to the Prey Chhlak pagoda, dug a hole in the ground and buried her in a plot of dirt, where she was left for dead, police say.
Only her cries saved her.
“At 4pm, pagoda boys heard a cry and thought it was a ghost’s voice, so they told monks,” Touch Sithuon, a Svay Rieng town police officer, said.
“The monks went looking for it and found a pile of dirt with a baby inside and they called police. The father says he is so ashamed because his daughter was born with a cleft lip, so he decided to bury her. It is really pitiful. She is a healthy baby weighing 3 kilograms, she just has a cleft lip.”
When the monks found her, she had been in the ground for at least an hour but was still breathing. She was quickly rushed to an emergency room. Though the state of her injuries from the burial is unknown, she is expected to recover.
“The hospital had to insert an oxygen tube, because when she was brought here she was weak,” Ke Ratha, director of the Svay Rieng Health Department, said.
Police arrested the father, who is being detained for questioning. The mother, Heng Ny, 28, was brought to the emergency room to breastfeed the baby.
Ny told police she was not aware that her husband had buried their daughter, and had “burst into tears” when her baby was taken away, according to police reports.
Even though cleft lips and palates are easily corrected, and affect as many as one in 500 babies in the Kingdom, the birth defect, like other disabilities and deformities in Cambodia, tends to be heavily stigmatised.
Wednesday’s incident wasn’t the first time in Cambodia a parent rejected his or her child because of a cleft lip.
“We’ve heard stories of parents abandoning their children on the side of the road because of cleft lips,” David Fruitman, director of Operation Smile Cambodia, said.
“Sometimes people blame themselves and think a cleft lip is punishment. In the Buddhist faith . . . some people think it’s a fault of the past life of the baby,” he said, adding that some of the clinic’s patients have reported being afraid to go to school for being mocked or bullied.
Dr Keo Vanna, director of reconstructive surgery at the Children’s Surgical Centre in Phnom Penh, said poverty can play a role in rejecting children born with the disfigurement, as parents who are poor feel hopeless when presented with what they view as an expensive health problem.
“They think they need to spend a lot of money on surgery and do not know there are clinics that will help them free of charge,” he said.
For the buried newborn baby at least, the situation isn’t all bleak. Several clinics have already offered free, corrective surgery once she is at least a year old.
“The prognosis is very good for most patients with a cleft lip or palate,” Vanna said. “Most of the time it’s not a very difficult surgery.”