Cablegate: Cambodia's Burgeoning Youth Population

Published: Wed 17 Feb 2010 07:29 AM
DE RUEHPF #0113/01 0480729
R 170729Z FEB 10
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: A recent uptick in drug use, particularly
ice - the crystallized form of methamphetamine preferred by
Cambodia's new urban elite - has resulted in increased
scrutiny of the social triggers and available treatment for
Cambodia's young population. Reported increases in teens
holding "drug parties," domestic violence, rape, and gang
activity have a potential to affect social stability and in
part have been attributed to lack of jobs, inadequate
recreational activities for the youth, the wide availability
of methamphetamines, and absence of effective drug treatment
facilities. Drug treatment centers have long been accused of
human rights abuses, and the Royal Government of Cambodia
(RGC) is just now beginning to grapple with a response. As
the youth population continues to swell and job creation
continues to diminish or stagnate, there is an acute need to
address drug dependence in Cambodia. END SUMMARY.
The Youth Problem
2. (SBU) A recent Interagency Conflict Assessment revealed
that the growing youth population and low law enforcement
capacity are two of the most significant issues threatening
Cambodia's political, economic and social stability.
Cambodia enjoyed double digit economic growth over the past
decade. High growth rates have created expectations of
continued prosperity among young people in a society where
the median age is 25 and 24% of the population is between the
ages of 15 and 25. As the global economic crisis hit
Cambodia's export-driven economy, a widening gap developed
between expectations and reality. The effect struck
particularly hard on a naive Cambodian youth population who
are slowly realizing that their expectations of easy jobs and
money may be left unfulfilled. As a result, they are overly
susceptible to negative social forces, and rates of drug
abuse and illicit activity are on the rise.
3. (SBU) Stories of "spoiled children" running into trouble
with the law litter the local media. These same teens in
rehabilitation centers tell of selling gifts from their
parents, such as motos and jewelry, to buy drugs. One
rehabilitation resident stated he spent $1000 of his parent's
money in one month on drugs, a huge sum in a country where
the average family lives on less than a dollar a day. GDP
per capita has steadily increased over the past decade, with
only a slight drop in 2009 due to the global economic crisis.
While reliable estimates on the size of Cambodia's emerging
middle class do not exist, one of the country's leading think
tank directors believes it to be anywhere from 5-10% of the
population. For the Cambodian youth that is part of this
growing middle class, the new concept of disposable income
appears to be both seductive and dangerous.
The Drug Problem
4. (SBU) Officially, law enforcement and education leaders
state that the majority of middle class youth regularly
attend school, stay out of trouble, and drug use has
decreased due to "Prime Minister Hun Sen's crackdown on drugs
and violence." However, this assessment does not necessarily
reflect the reality on the ground. Although the exact number
of illicit drug users in Cambodia is not known, the National
Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) estimates it to be
6,000. According to NGOs and law enforcement experts working
in the field, the actual figures are likely to be much higher
- the United Nations has estimated that as many as half a
million people in Cambodia may be drug users. Experts from
the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations
Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and others have reported
sharp spikes in drug use and increased production. According
to DEA, there has been an uptick in regional contacts
discussing the amount of drugs coming from Cambodia, and
large lab busts indicate that Cambodia is no longer simply an
easy transit route (Ref B). Off the record, the same RGC
officials who laud the government's ability to control
delinquent behavior told Poloff that there has been a sharp
increase in violence and drug use among youth specifically
from middle class and wealthy families.
PHNOM PENH 00000113 002 OF 004
5. (SBU) University students corroborate this by stories of
rising drug use and premarital sex at school (both taboo in
Cambodian culture). A Muslim student from Kampong Cham
University told Poloff that approximately "65% of students
take meth regularly. It is cheap, cool, easy to access, and
then they can't stop." According to another student, "Five
years ago it was mainly gangs - now everyone does it." An
administrator for a semi-private drug rehabilitation center
in Phnom Penh stated that just under half of his clients are
students, with another third just out of school and the
remainder social "undesirables" such as the homeless, sex
workers, and street children who are placed there by the
authorities. Middle class teens regularly buy easily
available drugs and are known to rent rooms in guest houses
with friends to hold "drug parties." Apparently this has
become so widespread that in early February the district
Governor of one of the more notorious drug areas in Phnom
Penh warned guest house owners that failure to stop such
gatherings would result in their businesses being shut down.
High-end night clubs throughout Phnom Penh are filled with
youth who have enough money to both enter the clubs, and
purchase the party drug of choice - ice - which is readily
available and sells for approximately $40-$50 a dose.
6. (SBU) The effects of ice are widely known - a highly
addictive crystallized form of methamphetamine which attacks
the pleasure centers of the brain, can cause sleeplessness,
paranoia, depression, hyper sexuality, and with prolonged
high-dose use, stimulate psychosis and the potential for
extreme violence. Dubbed the "perfect high," the ice
return-to-use rate after twice using has been documented as
high as 95% (compared to 20% for heroin or crack). Studies
in the U.S. show strong correlations between meth use and
increased criminal activity, domestic violence, child abuse,
and rape. According to an expert who has been working on
organized crime issues in Cambodia for over 10 years, meth
use is "off the scale." Describing meth use as a "cancer
eating the Cambodian family and culture from the inside out,"
the expert warned that the paranoia associated with meth and
the level of Post Traumatic Stress in the country from the
Khmer Rouge era has created a "dangerous brew" where
individuals go from normal to extreme violence in a fraction
of a second. Although there is currently no empirical
evidence linking it to drug use in Cambodia, local NGO
Licadho reports the number of rape cases has been steadily
increasing over the past few years, with approximately 60% of
last year's cases involving victims who were minors. Also
disturbing is the fact that many of the perpetrators were
also minors.
The Social and Economic Problem
7. (SBU) Besides availability, experts believe that the rise
in drug use among the middle class youth can be attributed to
a change in the culture where both parents now work and have
less control over the daily activities of their children.
Overcrowding in schools, little interaction between students
and teachers, and no linkage between schools and parents have
been described as obstacles to controlling drug use.
Furthermore, although a principal at one of the prestigious
high schools in Phnom Penh stated that drug use decreased
since he constructed a huge gate around the school, locked
students in during class time, and began providing drug
awareness training, he indicated that parents lack knowledge
about drugs and should be more involved in their children's
lives. He also blamed a lack of alternatives for youth, and
believed that more sports opportunities or vocational
training would help to decrease drug use among the idle
middle class.
8. (SBU) In addition to the social effects, the economic
burden of meth abuse can be substantial. The costs
associated with meth use in Cambodia are just beginning to
emerge and can be seen in the form of lab cleanups, law
enforcement including the arrest and incarceration of drug
users, and social and health services. Many of these
expenses currently fall on NGOs and international donors.
According to experts, it is likely that the percentage of the
Cambodian population addicted to meth at the very least
equals that in the U.S. where it is estimated to be at 0.1%.
The economic cost of meth use in the U.S. has been estimated
by the RAND Corporation to be approximately $23.4 billion,
including the burden of addiction, premature mortality, lost
productivity, and drug treatment. Although Cambodia's
PHNOM PENH 00000113 003 OF 004
population is much smaller with a lower rate for services,
its economy is nevertheless ill equipped to handle the costs
associated with drug addiction.
The Treatment and Human Rights Problem
9. (SBU) In 2008 the NACD reported that 2,382 people were
detained in government rehabilitation centers. Official
numbers for 2009 are not yet available, however an official
at the Cambodian Anti-Drug Department stated that
specifically the number of youth sent for treatment has
increased. According to a deputy director of the NACD,
parents with money try to hide their children's drug use by
secretly sending them to rehabilitation centers, often
abroad. This phenomenon was confirmed by Channarith Chheng,
director of a local think tank, who stated the majority send
their children to private clinics in China or Australia - due
both to the poor quality of rehabilitation centers in
Cambodia and the readily accepted story that their child has
gone abroad to visit family or study. Culturally, drug use
is unmentionable, and certainly does not happen among "good
families," which may explain why so many of the middle and
upper class drug users are secretly sent to government
rehabilitation centers or abroad for treatment.
10. (SBU) Given the reports of human rights abuses and lack
of treatment at local rehabilitation centers, it is not
surprising that those who can send their children outside
Cambodia for treatment. The eleven government-run
rehabilitation centers in Cambodia are boot camps at best
and, according to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report,
"torture centers" at worst. Drawing from interviews
conducted in 2009 with 74 people including 53 who had been
detained one or more times in a government center, the HRW
report details cruel and inhuman treatment of drug users and
other "undesirables" sent to Cambodia's rehabilitation
centers. Such treatment includes being shocked with electric
batons, whipped with twisted electrical wire, beaten, forced
to perform arduous exercise and labor, and sexual abuse.
Although he realized it is unrealistic, HRW author Joseph
Amon told Poloff that his recommendation to immediately and
permanently close all rehabilitation centers was intended to
"spark discussion" of alternatives. He is particularly
concerned that NGOs are working with the centers rather than
looking at ways to support change.
11. (SBU) Indeed, few deny the validity of human rights
concerns in these centers, where the majority of detainees
are involuntary and approximately 1/3 are under the age of
eighteen. Poloff visited one private and four government
centers, and was openly told of involuntary methods to
control the detainees, such as intense exercise and tying
detainees up, and was shown electric shock wands which were
"used fairly regularly" because the detainees could "get
12. (SBU) Most RGC officials insist clients at the
rehabilitation centers are there voluntarily; however the
concept is far from clear. During a recent speech, the head
of the NACD told the audience that "all drug users go to the
centers voluntarily, and if they don't volunteer, we arrest
them." This seemed to be the case in early December when the
NACD was looking for volunteers for a human drug trial of a
relatively unknown substance, Bong Sen, provided by the
Vietnamese to "cure drug addiction." When volunteers did not
materialize, drug users were rounded up and taken to the
local police station where the director of the trial, Dr.
Meas, told Poloff he "negotiated and convinced them to
volunteer." Bong Sen had not been registered with the
Ministry of Health for use in Cambodia, and information on
the substance, its registration, and whether it had been
subject to an ethical review was not made available to the
"volunteers" or organizations involved, thereby foregoing
informed and voluntary consent.
13. (SBU) At the Center for Education Correction and Vocation
Training for the Victims of Drugs (CECVTVD), a center which
Poloff visited but to which HRW was denied access, 10-20
detainees to a room are padlocked in from the outside at
night and for a portion of the day after lunch. According to
the director, the center receives about 20 new clients each
month, 90% of whom are brought by parents or the police who
have been asked by parents for assistance, and at least half
of whom are students. According to the director, drug use is
PHNOM PENH 00000113 004 OF 004
"shameful" and "unspeakable" for the family. Children as
young as 10 have been housed at his facility and do not go to
schoo during their months of "rehabilitation."
14. (SBU) Expenses related to drug treatment are required by
law to be paid by the RGC. Nevertheless, these centers
readily accept donations from parents, who also bring food
and other items of comfort during the usual 3-6 month stint
in the center. According to the HRW report and observers,
while the centers take in the homeless, street children and
sex workers, the majority of clients are from well-off
families who can afford a $50-$200 a month "donation." These
families can also better afford the alleged bribes needed to
secure a spot in a detention center rather than being sent to
prison after a drug related arrest. Given the lack of
treatment provided at the centers, the profits can be high
and costs low.
Working on the Problems
15. (SBU) Although Cambodian officials dismissed both the
report and its recommendation to close the centers, attention
to the issue has recently sparked discussion about
alternative forms of treatment. Instead of working within
the centers to provide health and other essential services -
as at least one NGO attempted before cancelling the program
due to human rights issues - donors are now discussing ways
to increase community services to eventually eliminate the
need for residential centers. The idea is that, with more
treatment options available for drug users, the numbers sent
to government-run rehabilitation centers will slowly
decrease. The Australian government has pledged funding for
community services through its HIV/AIDS Asia Regional Program
(HAARP). UNODC has an ongoing pilot program focusing on
community based treatment in a few provinces. The head of
NACD is receptive to changes in the approach to drug
treatment, recently requested UNODC's program be expanded
from the original 10 to 350 communes, and indicated that most
of the centers will be closed by 2015. At that point, the
NACD hopes to have more community based treatment options
available, and will also have one "center of excellence" in
Sihanoukville which is currently being built with Vietnamese
funding. After a recent meeting with government officials,
UNODC Regional Representative Gary Lewis stated he believes
that the government is "concerned" by human rights abuse
allegations in the HRW report and their intention to find
alternatives is "sincere."
16. (SBU) At the last Mini-Dublin meeting, donors discussed
the need to focus on a health and community response to the
drug problem rather than a law-enforcement approach (Ref A).
A prominent Cambodian intellectual whose own cousin is in
China for drug treatment stated that "drug use among
teenagers is increasing, and the government alone cannot
control and manage its spread." He believes civil society
can play an important role and that education, public
awareness, job opportunities, sport and other cultural
activities are the core solution to the drug problem. Others
echo his views.
17. (SBU) While WHO, UNODC and others provide public
awareness and are beginning to focus more on community based
treatment, the Embassy is enhancing life skills training in
schools, building capacity in health care, constructing
sports infrastructure throughout the country, and has an
increased emphasis on programs and opportunities for
Cambodia's youth. However, until the job market is ready to
absorb the approximately 200,000 youth leaving high school or
university each year, the potential for increased drug use
and associated economic burdens and social instability
remains a real concern. Moreover, we will continue ongoing
dialogs regarding involuntary confinement and other alleged
human rights abuses at senior levels in an effort to
eliminate or mitigate the negative impact of the centers
until alternative forms of treatment are expanded to reach a
wider population.
View as: DESKTOP | MOBILE © Scoop Media