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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 01
Mae Sai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
10 Jun 2015

Child begging at the Thai-Burmese border city or Mae Sai.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 15
Mae Sai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
10 Jun 2015

Beggar children taking a break at the Thai-Burmese border of Mae Sai.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 16
Mae Sai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
10 Jun 2015

Boys begging through the chain-linked fence separating Burma from Thailand in the thai border city of Mae Sai.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 17
Mae Sai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
10 Jun 2015

Burmese children begging at the Thai-Burmese border city of Mae Sai.

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Children of Migrant Labor in Southeas...
Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia
By Stephane Grasso
04 Apr 2015

An estimated 214 million persons worldwide are international migrants, along with an estimated 740 million internal migrants. Youth make up a disproportionate share of migrants from developing countries; about one third is between 12 and 25 years old. This includes millions of children under the age of 18. Migrant Children travelling with or with out their family in the South-East Asian region are most vulnerable group risking of child labor and human trafficking. Children attached to migrant worker parents can be found actively working in sectors such as domestic labor, street vending, farming, construction, waste collecting in garbage dumps and begging, often without accompanying adults or family and without safety or protection. Other common forms of child labor found in migrant communities including seafood processing, where children are often found working along side their parents in seafood markets or ship docks where seafood are unloaded, processing plants, and frozen processed food factories.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 11
Paoy Paet, Cambodia
By Stephane Grasso
04 Apr 2015

Girl living in a slum in Paoy Paet, Cambodia, near the Thai border. During the evenings, many children enter the no man's land in between the two checkpoints and beg the passers by.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 12
Paoy Paet, Cambodia
By Stephane Grasso
04 Apr 2015

Young teen working on a construction site in one of Paoy Paet's many slums.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 13
Paoy Paet, Cambodia
By Stephane Grasso
04 Apr 2015

Boy living in a slum in Paoy Paet, Cambodia, near the Thai border. During the evenings, many children enter the no man's land in between the two checkpoints and beg the passers by.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 14
Paoy Paet, Cambodia
By Stephane Grasso
04 Apr 2015

Cambodian children begging in the no man's land between the Thai and Cambodian checkpoints of the Paoy Paet border.

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Hinduism in Nepal 01
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
02 Apr 2015

Young Hindu boy supported by his family goes through the rite of passage at the Golden Temple in Kathmandu on 2 April 2015.

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Hinduism in Nepal 02
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
02 Apr 2015

Young Hindu boy goes through the rite of passage at the Golden Temple in Kathmandu on 2 April 2015.

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Hinduism in Nepal 03
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
02 Apr 2015

Grandmother and grandchild at rite of passage ceremony for brother/grandson at the Golden Temple in Kathmandu on 2 April 2015.

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Hinduism in Nepal 04
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
02 Apr 2015

Woman stirs a fire pot at a Hindu religious festival in Kathamandu on 2 April 2015. Fire plays an important role in the worship of deities through sacrifices and offerings.

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Hinduism in Nepal 05
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
02 Apr 2015

Two Hindu men stir the fire pots at a Hindu religious festival in Kathamandu on 2 April 2015. Fire plays a role in the worship of important deities through sacrifices and offerings.

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Hinduism in Nepal 06
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
02 Apr 2015

A man from the Brahmin caste taking part in a Hindu festival in Kathmandu on 2 April 2015. Despite a move from the traditional caste system towards a more economically based class system, the Bramins are still well represented in the top layer of the Nepalese society.

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Hinduism in Nepal 07
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
11 Mar 2015

Burial rites performed at the Hindu Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu on 11 March 2015. A nearby hospice located on the temple grounds represent for many Hindus in Kathmandu the last stop. The body is then wrapped in cloth and brought to the river to be ritually washed before it is brought to the funeral pyre and burned.

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Hinduism in Nepal 08
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Noe Falk Nielsen
11 Mar 2015

The wealthier Hindus have their deceased family members cremated on the piedestals along the river bank at the Hindu Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. The body is placed on a funeral pyre and cremated. The remains are unceremoniously swept into the river, once the family is gone and the fire is out. Kathmandu 11 March 2015.

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LGBT Community in Myanmar Says 'Enoug...
burma
By Pablo L. Orosa
09 Mar 2015

At sundown, only the golden dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda shines in the Yangon's sky. Now the bustle of the afternoon has disappeared and the People's Park, one of the most crowded places in the city, remains in silence. In the west corner, at least fifty candles cry out against tortures, harassment, police abuses and discrimination. Hidden for 50 years, Burma's LGTB community is now clamoring for their rights. 

“Some weeks ago, a friend of mine was walking in the lane, here in Yangon, when a group of men started to insult him because of his sexuality. Right after, they attacked and beat him”. Incidents like this, reported by Zae Ya, a spokesperson of activist group Colors Rainbow, are quite frequent in Burma. Despite the improvement achieved since the dissolution of the Military Junta in 2011, lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people are still facing bullying and violence in their daily life. “Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) minorities do suffer from social prejudices and discrimination”, says Lynette Chua, an expert on LGTB issues and professor of Law at the National University of Singapore.

In Burma, homosexuality is not illegal, although it is de facto outlawed under Section 377 of the Penal Code 1860, which defines the ‘unnatural offence’ of carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal and punishes it by imprisonment for up to ten years. In theory, this offense could be applied to all genders, but in fact it is interpreted by the police as criminalizing male consensual homosexual conduct as well as other “unnatural” sex forms.

This law was inherited from the British colonial era and is based on the Indian Penal Code. In roughly 80 countries, at least half of which were British colonies, this repressive law is still in force. Unlike other Southeast Asia countries, such as Cambodia or Laos, where the age of consent sex for both heterosexual and homosexual sex is 15, in Burma same sex behavior is criminalized. Even if homosexual relations cannot be proved, LGTB people may be sued for public nuisance (Section 268 of the Penal Code), negligently spreading sexual disease (Section 269) and detained under local Acts for suspicious activities. On December 29, about 30 transgender people were arrested in Kandawgyi area. “There are a lot of people in prison due to their sexuality”, declares Hla Myat, program officer at Colors Rainbow. “They can punish LGTB community using the legal system”, adds Zae Ya.

Police abuses: torture and arbitrary arrests 

On 7 July 2013, a gathering of around 20 men, some of them Police officers, “assaulted” a group of gay and transgender people in the area of Sedona Hotel, in Mandalay, “pushing, hitting, handcuffing and pulling off their garments in public”. Once in custody, “police continued to abuse the group of 11 detainees, hitting and kicking them constantly, stripping them naked in the public areas of the Mandalay Regional Police headquarters, photographing them, forcing them to hop like frogs, forcing them to clean shoes and tables, to walk up and down as if on a catwalk, uttering obscenities at them, and otherwise physically and psychologically demeaning them”, the Asian Human Rights Commission reported.

Cases of alleged arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of people on the grounds of sexual orientation have become chronic in Burma, particularly in the Mandalay area. “Big cities, especially Yangon, are more open-minded, but in rural areas the situation for LGTB people is more difficult”, explains Zae Ya.

In a 2014 statement, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned that “police reportedly use the law to intimidate and extort bribes” from transgender and homosexual people: “inside police detention and prison, there are reports of humiliating treatment such as MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender persons being forced to strip naked and dance, beaten with a rod (Nan-Bat-Dote), ridiculed while they are naked, pressured to have sex and burnt with cigarettes”. Paying bribes is often the best way to escape from this.

Lifetime social stigma

There are at least fifty people this night in the People´s Park, most of them under 30´s. They chat in a lively way. Tin Cu Chu, who wears a pink shirt from which hang sunglasses, appears with a candle. Then everybody falls silent. After two minutes, two voices begin to speak. It´s Burmese language, but the message is clear: it´s high time to claim our rights. The candles are to shed light on these hidden people.

Behind all abuses and discrimination faced by LGTB community there are social reasons. Although most people have no problem with them, - “there is no problem if there is no public announcement about relationship”, says Hla Myat-, some society groups are becoming more and more intolerant regarding sexual orientations. Religion is playing a big role in that. Theravada Buddhism, the main religious branch in Burma, enhances gender roles. In Mandalay, for example, religious authorities advised that homosexual men are not authorised on the upper level of the place of worship, where only men are allowed. “There is a populist belief in Buddhism in Myanmar that one is reborn a SOGI minority and thus has to endure suffering in this lifetime, because one has committed sexual transgressions, for example adultery, in one's past life”, illustrates Chua.

These theological assumptions have imbued Burmese culture, inciting social disturbances. At home, some fathers believe that bringing up a homosexual child hurts the family´s dignity and force his marriage. Intolerance starts at school too. “LGTB students usually suffer discrimination from their colleagues, even from their teachers who say to them ‘you are not natural, you are not normal. You have to change your behavior because it is not in accordance with our culture’”, notes Zae Ya. Due to bullying and mistreatment, the majority of these children quit the school before graduating, which puts them in a weak position to earn a living. “Most of them don´t have a chance to get a good job”, adds the Burmese activist. 

In its study, UNDP reports that many transgender and gay men have limited work opportunities  “because of stigma and discrimination and stereotyping”. In many cases there are constraints on expressing their sexual orientation and gender identity in workplaces. For many of them, above all among transgender people, sex work is the only way-out. However, working in the streets leads to more problems with the Police -it has been reported that some policemen extort money from them and some require sex to be provided under threat of arrest- and the high risk of contract HIV.

According to official data, HIV prevalence among MSM in Burma was 29.3 percent as of 2008, 42 times higher than the national adult prevalence rate. Since then, as a result of a successful national health program, HIV prevalence has fallen to 7.8% in 2011. In 2013, the rate grows to 10.4%. Social disturbances and law enforcement are discouraging programme beneficiaries from accessing basic HIV services, UNDP recognizes in its report. 

2015, the year of the change

When last November a same-sex couple celebrated their tenth anniversary publicly, a controversial debate shook the Burmese society. It was the first time that a gay couple did this in the country. Moreover, in 2014 the first LGTB film festival took place in Yangon, and some nightclubs in the city organized special parties for lesbians and gays. “Some years ago things like these would have been impossible”, says Zae Ya.

The democratic winds will be verified in 2015, with the elections. “We can change positively our country. We can get more rights”, insists the Colors Rainbow spokesperson. However, it is not clear what is going to happen. Perhaps, the candles will blow out. Perhaps, more must be lit. 

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 08
Chiang Mai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
27 Feb 2015

Two young boys transport flowers from a small field in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 09
Chiang Mai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
27 Feb 2015

Young construction worker on break at a the site of a future hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 10
Chiang Mai, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
27 Feb 2015

Little girl assisting her parents on a construction site in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 06
Loi Ta Leng, Myanmar
By Stephane Grasso
06 Feb 2015

Young soldier at the Shan State Army (South) National Day in Loi Ta Leng, Myanmar.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 05
Samut Sakhon, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
31 Jan 2015

Teenage boy ending his night shift from a factory in Samut Sakhon, Thailand.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 07
Samut Sakhon, Thailand
By Stephane Grasso
31 Jan 2015

Young teen working at the Samut Sakhon fish market in Samut Sakhon, Thailand.

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Child Labor in Southeast Asia 03
Kathmandu, Nepal
By Stephane Grasso
09 Jan 2015

Child selling items in the street in Kathmandu, Nepal.

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Thailand: A Solar-Powered Path to Dev...
Mae Sot, Thailand
By Ana Salvá
09 Dec 2014

FULL ARTICLE AVAILABLE ON REQUEST

Access to electricity is a key element in development. However, in Thailand there is an important gap in access to energy between rich and poor that has persisted over the years, especially in rural areas. The situation is critical in some marginal areas, such as the Thai-Burma border.

The lack of electricity makes these communities more vulnerable. In these areas, some villagers depend on candles or kerosene lamps that are very expensive and have a negative impact on their health. They also pose serious risks to their livelihoods since their homes are usually constructed with bamboo and dried leaves that can easily catch fire. On the other hand, these communities must gather wood in order to satisfy their most basic needs, tasks that are normally carried out by women, cutting into the time and energy they could devote to other economic activities. Moreover, some schools and hospitals do not have access to power for needs as basic as keeping vaccines refrigerated.

The Thai government implemented solar energy systems in more than 200.000 households in 2004. However, most of the systems died because of the lack of maintenance. In this context, a Thai woman founded an organization to refurbish the old equipment and to train local people on how to maintain it. Her project aims to be self-sustainable. If successful, it could bring some much needed relief to families who currently struggle to meet their energy needs.

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Philippines: Mindanao's Displaced Fac...
Mindanao
By Carlos Sardiña Galache
19 Nov 2014

Journalist Carlos Sardiña Galache travelled to Zamboanga, Philippines in October to cover the situation of IDPs and, more generally, the conflict in Mindanao in the light of the ongoing peace process between the MILF and the government. He interviewed several IDPs, Philippine army officers, Muslim activists, members of the MNLF and the MILF, and members of the local authorities, including the Mayor of Zamboanga.

FULL ARTICLE UPON REQUEST

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) are still waiting to go back to their homes in the city of Zamboanga, in the restive island of Mindanao, in southern Philippines.

The conditions in the IDP camps are far from ideal and 186 people have died due to the unsanitary conditions in this and other camps since they were established.

A battle last year between a disgruntled faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine Army in the streets of the city left 218 people dead, more than ten thousand houses were destroyed and at least 120,000 people were left displaced. It was one of the latest violent episodes in a conflict between the government and Muslim militant groups which has been going on for more than four decades and has left at least 160,000 people killed.

“My house was burned after the fighting,” said 38 year-old IDP and activist Gaman Hassan. “The problem is that when we wanted to take some belongings from the house, the military didn’t allow us to go back, because it seemed to us that they are thinking we are also part of the rebels, and that’s why they don’t allow us to go back to our area, Rio Hondo. Our belongings were stolen. We believe that the soldiers burned many houses to better locate the rebels. It’s also a way to justify the looting.”

With an ongoing peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), it is widely believed that the attack on Zamboanga was launched by the faction led by the MNLF founder and former chairman Nur Misuari, as an attempt to derail the peace negotiations.

“We will try to get Nur Misuari back in the fold, but sometimes he doesn’t agree with our ideas,” said MNLF Field Marshall Al-Hussein Caluang. “We can’t exclude Misuari from the MNLF, because there are a lot of people who follow him, particularly in Sulu and Zamboanga del Norte.”

The future is uncertain for the thousands of people displaced by the violence last year. Some of the areas where they used to live have been declared no-build zones for security reasons, amidst accusations by Muslim activists that the real motivation behind this decision by local authorities is purely political.

“The no-build zones are places with geo-hazards, which suffered big storm-surges between 2007 and 2013,” said Zamboanga’s Mayor Maria Isabel Climaco Salazar. “We can’t send back people there to stay, we can’t put them in dangerous areas. During the attack against Zamboanga City, those same places were the first areas that the MNLF used as entry points.”

In 2016 there will be a referendum by which each district will decide whether it wants to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, and some suspect that the authorities are doing everything they can to get Zamboanga, a Christian-majority city with strong Spanish influences, out of the autonomous region.

“The local government in Zamboanga City is working against the inclusion of Zamboanga in Bangsamoro,” said Arasid Daranda, a local information officer for the MILF. “Their main purpose is to prevent the Muslim authority from operating in Zamboanga City. They want Zamboanga City out of the Moro grip, but publicly they claim they want peace.”

With extremist groups like Abu Sayaf operating in the area, kidnapping both Filipino nationals and foreigners, Mindanao is one of the most dangerous and potentially explosive areas in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

“This ‘Asian’ latino city’ is a myth,” said Father Ángel Calvo, who has lived and worked as a missionary in Mindanao since 1972. “That belongs to the past. There’s nothing Latin in Zamboanga anymore. This is a multi-cultural community. We have eight or nine ethno-linguistic groups here, everybody with their own interests, naturally. This is very explosive. The government doesn’t realize this.”

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Stolen Beauty - Tribal Tattoos of Bur...
Chin State
By Michael Biach
26 Oct 2014

The isolated mountains of Burma’s Chin state are home to a number of hill tribes that have been separated from modern world for centuries. Chin women used to follow the thousand-year-old tradition of tattooing their faces. The ritual, officially banned by the government in the 1960s, doesn’t attract modern Chin girls anymore. Soon the thousand-year-old tradition could be gone forever.

According to an old legend a Burmese king once traveled to the remote hill regions of Chin state, which was known for its beautiful women. The King then displaced a Chin girl, brought her back to his palace and made her his wife. The girl, desperate and unhappy with its situation, finally managed to escape and tried to make her way back home, always afraid that the king could eventually capture her again. In order not to get caught again she disguised herself by making incisions in her beautiful face using a knife.

“It was like she was stealing her own beauty in order to protect herself from the king,” Daw San recounts the old fairytale. The woman in her sixties belongs to the Muun tribe, one of the few Chin sub-tribes that originally practiced the tradition of facial tattoos. “Every little child knows this story,” she further explains with a smile. Anthropologists believe that it is more plausible that not the king but hostile invaders from other tribes kidnapped the girls. The tattoos then would allow them to identify from which tribe a girl originates. Myth or truth, the fact is that the adoption of facial tattoos became part of Chin culture nearly a thousand years ago and since then has been passed from one generation to the other. Until recently at least.

Today the Chin people consist of various sub-groups which are distinguished only by the women’s facial tattoos as well as differences in their language. The tribes are mostly situated between the north of Arakan state and the southeastern hills of Chin state. The Burmese government officially banned the tradition in the 1960s after the military took over power in a coup d’état. But the Chin-State has long been neglected by the far-away government or, as others say, the Chin state has long tried to avoid contact with outside rulers. In fact the Chin people were in a state of war with the military regime until June 2012 when a formal truce was announced after power was shifted to a civil government. For most of the isolated hill tribes these past events happened without notice.

The Chin-State is still one of the country’s poorest and most isolated regions, with a 73% poverty rate according to an official survey. Some areas are widely inaccessible. While this is the reason that local traditions have survived the past centuries, it also means that malnutrition, childhood mortality and the risk for women to die in child bed are tremendous. Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the people’s living and health standard.

“People are now hoping that they will profit from the truce and from the booming tourist industry in Myanmar,” says Nay Aung, a 28-year-old guide from Bagan who is regularly organizing trips into the area for NGOs and adventurous tourists. Traveling to hill areas of Chin state is quite challenging and by now still far off the beaten track. Areas are only accessible by four-wheel-driving jeeps on damaged rough tracks. The two-to-three days drive is halted by river crossings, mudflows or flat tires. New roads are currently under construction, often with the use of low-paid child labor, but are not to be expected before the next three years. “Part of the roads get damaged again during the rainy season,” says Nay Aung, “this makes it hard to finish the construction”.

The mountainous area has always been wild and inaccessible. The Chin accepted the harsh and inhospitable conditions of the mountainous regions for centuries by choice, so they could avoid foreign influence and invasion.

But times are changing and more and more Chin, especially the young, are willing to open their region for a better health care, maintenance and modernity. “All the faces with tattoos are those of old women,” says Daw San. Her striking face is graced with distinctive patterns that symbolize a pearl necklace and a dominant ‘Y’ that is illustrating a sacrifice trunk. The tattoo shows that she is a member of the Muun tribe. The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai tribe or straight lines by the Yindu tribe to spiderweb-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun tribe where not even a single dot is spared. “Every tattoo has a spiritual meaning and defines the values of the tribe,” says Daw San. The sacrifice trunk in her face reflects the totem of her village. “So we know who we are and we can find our ancestors in the afterlife by identifying the tattoos,” Daw San is convinced.

The Chin, although most converted to Christianity by American Baptists a hundred years ago, are strongly committed to Animism. Every man or woman needs a ‘House of Spirits,’ a secure place for the afterlife. Once in his or her life, the tradition says, a member of the Muun tribe must hold a sacred ceremony to avoid harm by spirits and gain peace for the afterlife. During the week-long celebration the Muun will sacrifice one chicken, one wild pig, one goat and one wild buffalo and will divide the food with the tribe’s shaman and the remaining villagers. If the ritual is fulfilled one will collect flat stones from the river to build a ‘house of spirits’. After the death of a tribe member its remains are cremated and the ashes are laid to rest under the stone altar. “One is deemed to be alive until the bones have been disappeared,” explains Daw San. Only the most experienced hunters – or the wealthiest villagers – are able to repeat the ritual a second time in their life. “If this happens,” Daw San recounts further, “one is allowed to build the altar next to his or her home.” (See images of two stand-alone-altars next to home in photos 13 and 14, plus a ‘cemetery’ in pictures 19 and 20.)

The town of Mindat is situated five hours on foot through the mountains from the ‘house of spirits’ cemetery of this group of Muun villagers. The town doesn’t differ much from other places in modern-day Burma. Local boys play soccer as the sun goes down; some girls drive through the village on motorbikes; and trucks and jeeps park in front of the town’s market. The place is completely alien to the remaining tribe-members who live their lives quite isolated on the hills.

“Today the girls, at least in Mindat, see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past and they are aware of outside beauty standards,” says Daw San with a cautious smile. Decades ago it would have been out of question for a man to marry an un-tattooed girl. “When I was a little girl”, she says, “it would have been impossible not get tattooed. Every woman was proud of her tattoo.”

Daw San is aware of ongoing development in the remote corners Chin state where she lives, and this gives her hope that a better life is on the way. She is happy for this, but she also fears the consequences for the Chin’s traditional lifestyle. She doesn’t doubt that her face is one of the last with a tribal tattoo.

“Soon,” she says, “this thousand-year-old tradition will be gone forever.”

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Dreaming singapore 018
Semarang, Indonesia
By Ruom
10 Jun 2014

A domestic worker returns to work in Singapore after attending her mother's funeral at her home in Indonesia.

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Dreaming singapore 010
Kendal, Indonesia
By Ruom
09 Jun 2014

Aspiring domestic workers relax in their bunks at training centre.

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Dreaming singapore 042
Semarang, Indonesia
By Ruom
08 Jun 2014

Tutik arrives home after working in Singapore for three years. Her daughter Ika is so happy she is home she doesn't leave her alone.

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Dreaming singapore 040
Singapore
By Ruom
08 Jun 2014

Tutik prepares to fly home. She finished her contract with her employer and waits to board her plane back to Semarang in Indonesia.

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Dreaming singapore 041
Semarang, Indonesia
By Ruom
08 Jun 2014

Tutik arrives home after working in Singapore for three years. Her suitcases are filled with souvenirs for her two daughters.

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Dreaming singapore 026
Singapore
By Ruom
07 Jun 2014

Anandha recites the Koran during a contest organized by local Humanitarian organizations.

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War Relics Continue to Plague Vietnam
Quang Tri, Vietnam
By Sean Kimmons
02 Jun 2014

QUANG TRI PROVINCE, Vietnam – A demining team carefully removes a pile of rusty explosives – each one still able to kill or maim – from a quiet farm field where fierce fighting once raged during the Vietnam War.

Shortly after the lethal mortars and grenade launcher rounds were taken away, an anxious farmer in her 50s marched over to the de-mining team and expressed her frustration to everyone around.

“I’m afraid of more bombs but I need to work,” she said. “I have to risk death just to earn money.”

The farmer, Van Thi Nga, stumbled across the relics while growing vegetables, the main source of income in her village. Her village sits along the war’s former demarcation zone and is strewn with hidden explosives.

However, there was no time for sympathy as the busy team frankly told her to report other unexploded ordinance (UXO) if she sees more. The bomb disposal experts then did a brief sweep with a metal detector and left to their next call of duty: an unstable bomb in a nearby rice paddy.

De-mining teams in Vietnam face an epic task where roughly 20 percent of the country is littered with UXO. UXO includes everything from bombs, landmines, munitions, and other explosives.

This central Vietnamese province is the worst-hit region, with more than 80 percent of the land still peppered with deadly devices after nearly 350,000 tons of explosives were used.

In total, almost four times more firepower was deployed on Vietnam during the Vietnam War than in all of World War II.

Around 10 percent of the explosives used in the Vietnam War are believed to not have detonated. As a result, up to 800,000 tons of UXO remain in the communist state. That’s even beyond the 635,000 tons of bombs that US forces dropped in the entire Korean War.

“The contamination in Vietnam is huge,” said Portia Stratton, country director of Mine Advisory Group, the largest non-profit de-mining group in Vietnam. “We’re still finding the same number of UXO that we were finding [when we started here] 15 years ago.”

‘Lagging behind’

Introduced in 2010, Vietnam’s mine action strategy came years after other UXO-infested nations including its neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. which were also heavily bombed to jam communist supply routes in the war.

“Vietnam is lagging behind a lot of other countries that have significant levels of contamination,” Stratton said. “We still don’t have a full picture of what our efforts have achieved.”

Since the end of the war in 1975, war remnants have killed more than 42,000 Vietnamese and injured at least 62,000 others, according to preliminary statistics by the government.

But with no national database in place, UXO incidents and demining operations cannot be accurately tracked while affected remote areas go unnoticed, advocates say.

In March, the Vietnam National Mine Action Center was launched to provide more oversight in the secretive state, which already had similar mine action bodies at the national level.

Stratton warns that the new center may serve as another bureaucratic layer and further delay mine action services that often take up to one year to get government approval.

Middle-income blues

Despite its fondness for red tape, Vietnam has revived itself as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia after devastating warfare with US forces.

In 2009, the country gained lower middle-income status but the distinction has created a sort of Catch-22 paradox as foreign donors redirect funds elsewhere.

“There’s more of a challenge now to enable us to secure funding,” said Rickard Hartmann, country director for APOPO, a Belgium-based demining group. “We are very happy that Vietnam is developing but at the same time more and more donors are reducing their support.”

The 50-member APOPO group began operations in January after the German non-profit Solidarity Service International pulled out its 160 personnel from the area, leaving a two-thirds reduction in skilled labor, he said.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung recently called on the global community to boost support saying that “since the explosive contamination is so great, Vietnam truly needs assistance and support.”

Vietnamese officials claim that $10 billion is required to completely rid existing UXO – a feat that would take up to 300 years for the country to do on its own, they say.

Around 35,000 hectares of unsafe land is cleared annually but the state has ambitious plans to nearly triple that target to 100,000 hectares if external aid is increased.

Yet the government spends about $80 million on mine action, or less than 0.20 percent of its national budget.

Deputy Minister of Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment Nguyen The Phuong admitted that the meager funds “could not meet the actual needs of mine action activities.”

He also cited poor coordination between state and provincial entities, lack of human resources, and technology and equipment shortages as other factors hindering progress.

A 2012 assessment on Vietnam’s mine action program, conducted by the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Deming, revealed that the government and state-connected private investors bankrolled 92 percent of activities from 2007 to 2011.

The government currently expects foreign donors to cover about half of the estimated $368 million required for mine action from 2013 to 2015, according to a 2013 update on the national strategy.

But foreign donors only doled out $8.7 million for mine action in 2012, with the US contributing more than 40 percent of the total, the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reported.

Vietnam may be entitled to more foreign aid if they signed the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions that prohibits their use.

Even so, landmines are seen as legitimate weapons for border security. Officials also reject the cluster bomb pact since the 10-year deadline for member states to finish land clearance is unrealistic to them, they said.

Ironically, cluster bombs would likely delay the country due to how they were dispersed in the war. Hundreds of cluster bombs – each about the size of a tennis ball – were packed inside large airdropped canisters that scattered the bomblets over wide swathes of the countryside.

Although designed to explode on impact, many of them did not.

Enlisting local help

To deal with the funding shortfalls, bomb experts rely on villagers to be their eyes and ears for war remnants.

“To clean up every bomb and mine in Vietnam is impossible,” said Hien Ngo, spokesperson for Project Renew, a demining group that also empowers locals. “It’s a daunting task that will never likely be achieved, so we want to make sure that the land is safe by educating people about the risks.”

Ngo has already seen the value of his group’s education programs that are taught in schools and to those who come to their mine action visitor center in the province’s largest city.

He recalled when a 12-year-old boy halted a crew driving to another call and led them to a cache of 180 explosives concealed in the dense jungle.

“The boy learned what to do after he visited the center,” he said. “Now people are helping us report explosives.”

Nguyen Xuan Tuan, 29, wished he knew the dangers of war relics before he scavenged for scrap metal at a deserted US military base back in 2002.

After his friend found something on a metal detector, Tuan sliced the ground with his shovel. But as he dug deeper, he struck a cluster bomb.

The blast severed his right hand, cut deep scars across his body and knocked him into a three-day coma.

“I woke up seeing my parents crying and I realized that I was in a miserable situation,” he said. “The only thing I could do was cry and think that this was the end of my life.”

Tuan, one of the nation’s five Ban Advocates that campaign against cluster bombs worldwide, is now using his experience to educate others throughout the province.

“I’ve been very lucky to be exposed to the outside world,” he said. “In rural areas, many voices are not being heard and people do not receive the assistance they need.”

By the end of 2015, Vietnam aims to develop a national database and expand risk education to the most dangerous areas.

The US also continues to be the top donor for mine action activities in Vietnam, giving over $62 million so far, officials say.

But 50 years after the US military drastically built up its presence to counter evasive communist fighters, Ngo said that both sides have failed to tackle the aftermath and must “step up” their efforts.

“Although we see positive developments to make the war’s legacy finally history, bombs and mines are still killing and injuring people,” he said.

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Singapore
By Ruom
11 May 2014

Maid agency with domestic workers at Katong shopping centre.

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Singapore
By Ruom
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Agencies advertising maids for hire, and show their skills in display centre at Bukit Timah shopping plaza.

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Singapore
By Ruom
09 May 2014

Images advertising the work of migrant workers on the wall of a maid agency in Bukit Timah shopping plaza.

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Singapore
By Ruom
09 May 2014

Istiana waits for a taxi with her new employer. She was picked up from Bukit Temah Shopping Centre by her employer to be taken home.