Seeing is Believing: Cambodia

by David and Sue Ashelby



"Like something out of a movie!" shouted one of our group members as we hurtled into Phnom Penh in a tuk-tuk, laden with four people and our suitcases. Bikes and motorcycles wove in and out of the traffic, carrying mothers, babies, household items, vegetables - in fact anything that needed to be transported. We were glad of the breeze created by our drive, to stave off the effect of the heat and humidity.


This experience was the introduction to our visit to Glenn and Siobhan Miles in Cambodia, where the family have worked for many years. We went as representatives of Linden Church, Swansea; Glenn and Siobhan were involved with the church while Glenn was studying for a PhD at Swansea University.


It turned out that we were to spend a lot of time racing around in tuk-tuks as we visited some of the ministries in which Glenn was involved. Glenn remains on the board of most of these projects, many of which he helped to start using seed funding, and he continues in ongoing mentorship.


Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia. It is just under 70,000 sq miles, an area about three quarters of the size of the UK, and its population, of approximately 15 million people, is less than a quarter of that of the UK. Cambodia suffered badly under the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. An estimated 25% of the population died as a result of forced labour, relocation, torture and mass executions. In particular, the professional classes were targeted and murdered. Today there is hardly a Khmer person who does not have a family story concerning severe oppression and loss of family members. The fatalism of the country's Buddhist culture means that, on a superficial level at least, these times are accepted in a tranquil fashion.


One thing we hoped we would achieve from the visit was an understanding of the culture and how it differed from our own. Cambodia is a country of paradoxes: gentle people whose recent past involved unspeakable atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. Although there are western influences in the country, family units remain very strong. Families expect that when their children reach their mid-teens they will support their parents financially, even if that means their children are involved in the sex industry. We met a young man who had been rescued by a Christian organisation from sexual exploitation. He became a Christian, learnt English, trained as a tour guide and is now helping with children's clubs to prevent other young children being exploited. This is good news; however, the tour company have to be careful with clients because he is still vulnerable to predatory tourists. His Buddhist parents want him to return to the family in the countryside to support them. So his fragile, hard-won independence and Christian foundations are at risk.


At the Precious Women project we met a remarkable young woman, Solida Seng, who has set up the organisation to help girls leave the red-light district. An easy idea, one might think: teach the girls English, hairdressing or sewing skills and they can earn a living away from the streets. However, the participants have to fund themselves; how do they do that while learning these skills before they can earn a living? Their families' view is, 'we need 100 dollars a month and it doesn't matter how you earn it, just get it'. Tragically, speaking English also makes them more valuable in the sex trade. It was heartbreaking to meet these frail young girls, to pray for them, to be asked by them for a word of encouragement from the Lord and to know that they were returning to the red-light district that night.


Time constraints meant that we spent only one evening in the red-light district but, as expected, we witnessed some of the frontline activity, through which we were able to gain some idea of the challenges faced and potential opportunities for witness. A focus to address this issue was The Message Parlour, a unit in a local shopping mall, which was a coffee shop and 'sex-free' zone, where people could drop in and chat. At the time of our visit the mall was soon to be redeveloped and so The Message Parlour was looking for a new home.


Work is also being done to prevent trafficking in the first place. We met Sophany Pang, who runs an organisation called Kone-Kmeng(Small Children), which works with churches in Cambodia to address the needs of children at risk in their communities. We visited the dormitory for young people from the provinces, who have been through the programme and have been enabled to go to university in Phnom Penh. They wanted to know what miracles we had seen in our lives: quite a challenge but they expect, and do see, miracles in their own lives.


It is shocking that the introduction to sexual exploitation often starts within families. Glenn and various colleagues have developed an education project for children, called Good Touch, Bad Touch, to help deal with this issue. This is being distributed across much of South-East Asia and is being looked at in other parts of the world. One can see that these resources could also be of use in the UK.


The Good Touch, Bad Touch project teaches children about abuse and what to do if they are affected by it. Additionally, Glenn and a colleague, Sophorn Phuong, also carry out 'training of trainers'. Echoes have supported this project, providing instruction in Thailand and the Philippines.


Our Christian heritage and understanding is formative to our thinking. Therefore it was challenging to see video interviews of severely exploited, destitute transgender people expressing that their only hope was to be reincarnated into a better life. They have lost hope for this life entirely. In light of this, the certainty and hope of the Christian gospel shines through, and the need for the gospel is clear. Jesus showed a compassion for people on the edges of society and as His disciples we need to follow His example.


Linden Church has several links with overseas work, including one with a village and its school in Zambia, where groups are often used as a 'project working party', to promote a particular aspect of the work. However, this link with Cambodia is quite different, as Glenn and Siobhan have been a part of Linden Church. Any visit to them was going to be special. We have seen very few overseas Christian projects at such close range and before we went we wondered what benefit the various parties involved might receive from our visit. We were limited in how much practical assistance we could give; however, we hoped that presenting Glenn and Siobhan with an opportunity to talk to people outside their situation might be helpful, as they have been working under considerable stress.


Before going to Cambodia we had anxieties about what we were expected to 'do' there and how we would cope seeing people in such difficult circumstances. In the event, we felt that we 'did' little, but we listened to remarkable Khmer people who are trying to turn the tide, using whatever means they can: from tackling the demand side of sexual exploitation, to preventing young people from being exploited in the first place. Our eyes were opened to the complexities of Cambodian life and we were shown that solutions to these problems are not simple. In the West, human exploitation is often driven by the drug culture and large crime syndicates, whereas in Cambodia it is driven by poverty, usually within strong family groupings.


We left feeling privileged to have met so many people who have devoted their lives to the Lord and to helping their fellow human beings, and thankful for the time spent with Glenn, Siobhan and the family.


Did we find it challenging? Yes! Was it worth going? Absolutely!

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