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FEATURE: Poverty lures Cambodian children to use drugs.

PHNOM PENH, March 13 Kyodo

Poverty and domestic violence have pushed several thousands of Cambodian children into the streets to find fleeting relief in drugs.

The lingering trauma in Cambodian national life from the more than two decades of civil war has also scarred these children, only the thrill and charm of street life offer them momentarily escape.

Governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have attempted to stem the tide of kids into the streets through educational programs and societal reintegration, but without success.

And drug syndicate leaders have seized on the failures to reintegrate these street children into societal fold. The kids now look to the drug lords as their "bang thom" (big brothers/sisters) to give a semblance of order in their lives in the street.

The thriving ties between the criminals and the children symbolize Cambodia's limited success in its drive against drugs.

Among the substances abused by the children is glue that is used commercially in tire production in Thailand. Glue is cheap and easily available and most of the street children involved in drug abuse were initially found near Cambodia's border with Thailand.

But similar phenomena are now being seen in urban areas and in interior provinces as well.

Mean Bo, 13, is one of the thousands of Cambodian children sniffing glue to while his time away in the streets.

He sleeps on the pavement and support himself by begging and offering to guard cars. He started living in the streets in 1997 after escaping from an abusive mother.

He told Kyodo News he earns about 5,000 riel ($1.3) a day, keeps half of it to buy food and other necessities while the other half is paid to middlemen for glue.

"When I don't have money to buy glue, my friends share theirs with me," he said.

"I didn't know what glue was, but I was bored with my life and a friend who has been living in the streets longer than me invited me to sniff it just for fun," he said.

"From then on, I sniff it every day. It makes me happy, making me imagine I am in heaven."

Vet Pheak, 14, who has been inhaling glue for the past three years, said sniffing gives him "a great boost to steal or to court a girl."

He also confessed to having been arrested several times and to having been beaten by the police.

"I feel great relief from pain after getting a whiff of glue," he said.

Another glue addict is Sok Kha, 19, who said he was introduced to it by his friends.

He said he would feel "isolated and abandoned" if he refused to join glue-sniffing sessions.

"While glue-sniffing causes a brief respite from reality, its long-term detrimental effect on the brain can hardly be over-emphasized. Only a few children are aware of the danger of sniffing glue," said Sou Sophornnara, an official of an NGO called Redd Barna.

Sou Sophornnara added the street children who became drug-dependents are only one of the many groups controlled by drug gangs.

He said the gangs collect a lion's share of the children's earnings in exchange for Mafia-style protection.

Sou Sophornnara added there is severe punishment for violating rules imposed by the drug lords, noting children have scars caused by cigarette burns and slashes from razor blades.

Laurence Gray, an official of the NGO group World Vision, said glue has the immediate effect of not feeling hungry.

Gray said that from glue-sniffing children usually end up using more sophisticated drugs such as amphetamines.

There is no official estimate on the number of street children, but NGOs calculate the figure can range from 10,000-20,000 and the number is increasing every day.

The kids are believed to be susceptible to becoming victims of many types of vices and addictive substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, glue, opium and amphetamines.

The Cambodia's National Authority Combating Drugs (NACD) noted street children are on the increase in the provinces of Pailin, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Koh Kong, Kandal, Kompong Cham, Kampong Speu, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.

Em Sam An, secretary general of NACD, said many of the precursor chemicals, including amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and opium alkaloids, are being imported and used in Cambodia.

"The victims in this case are youths and many of them are street children and students," said Em Sam An.

He said foreign criminal drug syndicates are also relocating production bases from neighboring countries to provinces in the northwest and areas southwest of Cambodia.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Mar 20, 2000
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