Living Mission — Poverty, corruption go hand in hand in Cambodia

Father Charles Dittmeier

Probably most of us are familiar with the Gospel parable of the unforgiving servant. 

A servant forgiven a huge debt refuses to forgive a fellow servant a small amount and instead sends him to debtors’ prison. That infuriates the master of the first servant, and the master then sends him to debtors’ prison.

The master had a sense of justice. That is not the situation with much of officialdom in Cambodia. In the last column, I mentioned a Cambodian single mother of two children who was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail because she couldn’t pay the hospital bill when her son was stabbed in a phone robbery.

Another Cambodian mother, Theary, would babysit twice a month for an infant while the baby’s mother was away for three or four days at a time. In January, the mother dropped off the baby but without the usual diapers and milk, saying she would send money. She didn’t send money.  And she never came back. After a week, Theary’s husband figured the mother had abandoned the baby.

One morning the husband woke to find the baby not breathing. He did CPR but could not revive the child. The police came and accused Theary of lying and took her to the station. Her husband thought it was to do paperwork, but she never came home. No charges, no investigation, no autopsy. Just took her to prison.

At home, the police asked the husband for $500 to transport the baby’s body to the morgue. He didn’t have it, but he believes if he had paid, his wife would have been released. Then the next day the police went to Theary’s landlord and demanded $300 because the baby died in that building. Because of that, the landlord evicted the husband and their children.

Theary is still in prison. They don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, but one advised them that the police are waiting for the baby’s mother to return. If she doesn’t, the police may release Theary. But nothing will happen for at least six to 18 months.

Meanwhile, the husband can’t return to his job because he’s caring for their three children, who are crying to see their mother. Our St. Vincent de Paul group has assisted with rent and food and helped him get a laptop to work from home. 

To visit their mother, the prison charges the children $50 to get in. They have not seen her since January. The mother is anemic, and the husband asked us for $20 for medicine — $15 for the medicine and $5 for the guards to let it in. The prison diet is rice porridge and morning glory plants three times a day. Substantial food is available from a commissary run by relatives of the prison guards, but it is very expensive.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day the poor people we work with are stopped on the street for real and imaginary violations. Many have expired visas — they have no money to renew them — so when they are stopped, the police ask for $300 and they will let them go. If they don’t get $300, the police will turn them over to the immigration department for detention.  The $300 is for the police to look the other way, not for obtaining a new visa.

It is difficult to be poor anyplace in the world, but it is especially difficult in Cambodia, where you not only lack money but face official corruption. Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and pastor of the English-speaking parish there. Follow his journey at

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