Myanmar: Shan Villagers and the Salween Dam Fight

Development is sparking rising tensions in southeastern Myanmar.

Salween River via Shutterstock

Salween River via Shutterstock

[ Originally published in The Diplomat: ]

The increasing army presence to defend the construction of a controversial Salween river dam in southeastern Myanmar’s Shan state has sparked heightened concerns among rural villagers, who are determined to fight the development that threatens their livelihoods.

“The Burma army tanks are even moving there, but we are not afraid because we have nothing to lose. If the dam goes on, our farms will be underwater and we will lose everything,” said Khur Hseng, a Shan member of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, a civil society group that banded together in 2012 to defend the local environment and land rights.

In recent months, scores of government soldiers have flooded into the area surrounding the Mon Ton dam in southern Shan sate, and thirty-nine armed battalions – a fourfold increase in troops in the past twenty years – now guard the massive 241-meter high concrete structure which will dominate more than 32 kilometers of the Salween river, according to the Shan community-based organizations (CBOs). Local opposition is strong, but the Mon Ton dam (also called Tasan dam) project is forging ahead based on agreements signed in 2007 and approved by Parliament in February 2013 by the Chinese Three Gorge’s Corporation, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), and the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power.

Locals feel that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the dam – which will produce roughly 7,100 megawatts of electricity and export 90 percent of it to Thailand and China. Public fury over not being consulted prior to launching developments is also stirring.

“The Salween basin is politically and geographically marginalized. In the basin it is ethnic minority people so they have not been included in the decision-making,” said Pianporn Deetes, the Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers.

There are six dams planned for the Salween, crossing through the villages of upwards of 50,000 people who stand to lose their homes if the projects go ahead, and who have petitioned against the dams, according toInternational Rivers. Though the Australian consulting company hired by the Myanmar government, the Snowy Mountain Engineering Company (SMEC), say that it is trying to carry out social and environmental impact studies, as construction has already started with tens of kilometers of the river already off-limits to local villagers, people feel it is not real consultation.

“Contrary to media reports, SMEC has tried to engage with local civil society organizations on numerous occasions, with limited success,” said Geraldine Quinlan, the General Manager of Corporate Services at SMEC based in Melbourne.

SMEC has encountered near uniform protest by the residents of villages, many of whom have even boycotted meetings as a sign of opposition. In the past six months, hundreds of villagers from at least ten towns in Taunggyi, Mon Ton, Kung Hing, Mon Paeng, and Mong Pu Long have either blocked or protested at consultations, wearing anti-dam t-shirts to proposed meetings and handing out posters to the company explaining why the dam project should not go ahead.

“It is apparent that SMEC’s assessment is simply a sham, aimed to rubber stamp the Mong Ton dam plans rather than objectively assess the project’s actual impacts,” said Shan CBOs in a statement at a press conference in Bangkok last month.

Human rights advocates say that, given the history of forced relocations, conflict and abuse between ethnic populations by the former military government, investors should not sign agreements for major infrastructure projects with the government before speaking with the ethnic populations living on the designated sites.

“What we always condemn is that before approaching the people, investors approach the government. Before they should engage with the people first. At least then they know what the people think and whether they should continue the project or not,” said Rual Lian Thang, the Natural Resource Governance program coordinator for the Heinrich Boell Foundation, an international think tank for policy reform headquartered in Berlin.

“They did not even inform or try to work with local leaders,” said Hseng, referring to the government’s lack of transparency surrounding the start of construction for the Mon Ton dam, which will have a 641km reservoir spanning along two-thirds of Shan state.

Many villages and culturally significant sites will be submerged in water, including the 120-household strong Sawng Lak on the eastern bank of the Salween and a 700-year old pagoda, Ho Leung temple, in Mon Paeng township in the Wa Special Administrative region.

Communities also fear that they will not be adequately compensated for the loss of land, communities, and river water. While the government has promised compensation, based on past examples – such as the relocations forMyitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy river in Kachin state – left displaced villagers with such a small plot of land they could no longer farm as a means of survival, according to Boell Foundation’s Tsang.

Active and ongoing conflict between ethnic minority rebel armies and the government military – which have forced 300,000 people to relocate in the past two decades – make it impossible for any development projects to proceed in a sustainable and responsible way, say social and environmental experts.

In July, SMEC attempted to visit villages in Wa region, along the Salween river’s eastern bank bordering the Chinese border, but the United State Wa Army (USWA) blocked their visit due to instability and growing tensions, which erupted in fighting near Mon Ton dam in early June, according to a recent press release by the Shan State Action Network.

Though conflict has prevented extensive environmental studies from being carried out, a 2008 report by the Karen Environmental Social Action Network (KESAN) documented  at least 42 rare, indigenous species of plants and animals at risk of becoming endangered by hydropower.

But with decisions over the fate of Shan villagers and their biodiverse river being made behind closed doors thousands of kilometers away in Naypyidaw, Bangkok and Beijing, analysts say the fight ahead will be long. But villagers are prepared.

“This is our land, our river. They need to get out from here, because we do not accept or agree,” said Hseng.

Dana MacLean is a journalist covering Southeast Asia.


How we fuel child poverty

Painting by Maia Kirchkheli

Painting by Maia Kirchkheli

This article reflects on my investigation of children living and working in the streets in Bangkok, published in a series “Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s Invisible Children Exploited For Profit” which was recognized by the SOPA Awards 2015 for Excellence in Feature Writing.

You swallow your guilt and pretend like you don’t see the dirt streaked children begging on the sidewalk. Or, pull change from your pocket and plunk it into their cups smiling back at their grateful eyes, as you walk away awash with a sense of self satisfaction. This is the typical confrontation of individual compassion pressing up against a systematic problem. Well-meaning, charity-oriented Western religious credo says we should give to those less fortunate than ourselves, but fails to recognize feeding dependence pastes a bandaid on flawed social structures. That is charity in a nutshell: papering over chronic social issues while root causes expand beneath the surface, unseen. In the case of child beggars, an act of kindness unwittingly fuels an impoverished underworld that thrives off child labour, slashing their futures.

We rarely probe the surface of our physical environment. In Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand and Cambodia — children selling flowers at traffic lights or sitting beside adults on corners with a cup full of change are as commonplace as food stalls. How many times do we hurry by them, or look away from the car window, as if they are part of the scenery in our urban landscape? Everyone scurries by, on the way to work, a dinner we are 15 minutes late for, a long-awaited coffee with a friend we have lost touch with, a yoga class. People might feel a twinge of guilt or sadness, but then suddenly their phone is ringing or they’ve spotted a much sought-after taxi to hail. Nothing is questioned, probed, investigated. A small face in the street is taken at face value: “Poverty. [End of story].” But after years of turning over rocks as a journalist, as soon as someone whittles an issue down to poverty, I automatically suspect they have jumped at a simple word that has been used for decades to hide a multitude of sins.

Of course everyone should question inequality. But no one has time. I am lucky that my work is to dig beneath the first layer of a situation, to seek its heart, to scrutinize and contextualize and expose the multiple truths, while shining light on voices not frequently heard in mainstream societal discourse — burdens heaped on the marginalized by policies (or lack thereof) which lead to their daily downfalls. When I was researching for “Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s Invisible Children Exploited for Profit”, I was shocked to learn about the all-too-frequent collusion of relatives in a market, dissolving a child’s future by crassly amputating what is often the only opportunity they will ever have to dredge themselves from a life of constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel.

A child works to sell photographs in Yangon, Myanmar/ Dana MacLean.

A child works to sell photographs in Yangon, Myanmar/ Dana MacLean.

Education is one of the only paths of escape — in Thailand it is also one of the few universal social goods offered. After the age of 12, when children are no longer considered profitable on the streets, they lose their appeal to the adults who exploit them. But by that age, they are too often accustomed to ways of the streets, or too ashamed to study with others half their age, according to Friends International, a social enterprise network launched in 1994 to unshackle children tied to the begging profession.

As I scoured the streets with Friends International, accompanying the social workers on a nighttime mission to identify at-risk children and intervene, a kindly looking grandmother with a toddler pleaded with me for money for food. Meanwhile the social worker whispered in my left ear the octogenarian was a chronic gambler from the Cambodian border who repeatedly abducted her three grandchildren from their village, and primary school, to beg for money that would be thrown away in grimy Poi Pet casinos.

Later, while investigating a second overlapping issue (“Escaping abuse for torments of the street, Bangkok’s homeless youth can’t get a break”), I visited Childline Foundation’s youth centre, named The Hub, a safehouse nestled in a slum near the train station — the last stop, where destitute runaways disembark. Navigating the neighbourhood where sex workers loiter on streets and gangs of punked out teens huff glue canisters made me nervous, but upon stepping into The Hub, all apprehension dissipated. It is a rare offering of safety in hostile territory, a place where the kids can store their belongings in a locker, have a shower, sleep without fear, and attend classes. Youths leave their weapons at the door.

In the interviews the street teens told me how their alcoholic fathers terrorized them into panic-stricken sleepless nights, how the chronic battering and bruises that plagued their lives make the streets safer than home. They find security in groups, one stays on guard at night with a switchblade to ward off threats, and somehow they find a way to buy food everyday — loading goods on trollies in menial labour jobs or selling their bodies. They were just kids with a keen sense of survival, and as the social workers at the centre said, they were kids subjected to so many atrocities at home that life on the street paled in comparison. Sometimes the things that shock us are only the tip of the iceberg.

Nui, 19, ran away from home when he was 12 to escape abuse by his alcoholic father.

Nui, 19, ran away from home when he was 12 to escape abuse by his alcoholic father.

What these youths represent are people who have have been failed many times. First by their families, then by the absence of an adequate child welfare system. Without a home, how can they attend school? Like their younger begging counterparts, the void left by the dysfunctional adults in their life fractures their future. It isn’t just poverty. Any parent or adult that takes their child out of school and puts them in the streets, does so for a reason. And that reason is that there is profit to made. Of course they are poor, of course the extra income helps them to eat. But if it wasn’t profitable, that child wouldn’t be on the streets, exposed everyday to a seedy nightlife, racing traffic and human predators.

Systemic problems need systemic remedies, but our role is important too. While Friends International, plays a vital role creating alternative livelihoods for families, parents will be reluctant to do so unless the cash flow a child earns from begging dries up. While The Hub can offer temporary respite from street life and basic technical training, if no one hires them, they will always live as drifters. Even the picture painted by the articles — about the daily experiences of children robbed of protection by the broken adults in their midst — is just a small piece of the puzzle.

But at least I hope it exposed an angle of the world not often seen, and will make us think before rummaging in our pockets for coins the next time we see a child beggar. I hope it will contribute to the slow chipping away of a subconscious acceptance of poverty as part of life. Poverty does not have to exist. It is created and endorsed by individual actions and state policies. It is systemic, multifaceted, different in each case yet perpetuated through generations in a cycle of strangled opportunities. Whatever the case, poverty is never simple, and neither will be the solution.

Trade and transfat in the Pacific

Trade and transfat in the Pacific

BANGKOK, 17 November 2014 (IRIN) – Diminished agricultural production and unhealthy imports are contributing to some of the world’s highest obesity and diabetes rates in the Pacific Islands. Thousands of kilometres away from this backdrop, high-level officials are gathering for the only second-ever global nutrition conference in Rome, starting 19 November, to consolidate agreement on an international framework to improve nutrition.

Six out of the 10 countries with the world’s highest diabetes prevalence are in the Pacific Islands, according to the Belgium-based International Diabetes Federation. In Fiji, two people undergo limb amputations almost daily due to the disease, according to local media.

“Non-communicable diseases [NCDs] have been declared a crisis for the Pacific. Most of it is [due to] the food environment where people live, where there are just not many healthy options,” Peter Sousa Hoejskov, a technical officer for food safety and non-communicable diseases with the UN World Health Organization (WHO) based in Suva, Fiji’s capital, told IRIN.


Experts say combating this disabling and deadly NCD trend will require everything from more nutritional education to trade policy changes and local agriculture investments.

Warning signs for NCD are mounting: According to WHO, in at least 10 out of 14 inhabited Pacific island countries where health data is gathered, more than half the population is overweight.

Residents in 14 Pacific island countries and five nearby “territories” who used to consume home-grown foods like root crops, or other locally-produced foods, have over the past decade increasingly turned to low-cost, low-nutrient, processed foods imported from abroad.

Some 27 percent of the food consumed on Vanuatu Island is imported; the figure goes up to 91 percent in the Marshall Islands.

Local crop yields down

With agriculture yields on the decline, high-sugar and high-sodium packaged goods have become the “new staples”, said Hoejskov.

“The soil here is not good for farming. Luckily we have the shop nearby so we can buy instant noodles and rice. My son eats [instant noodles] almost three times per day,” said Sarah Tareoha, a mother of eight living in Marau, the eastern part of Guadalcanal Island in Solomon Islands.

The traditional staple sweet potato has 55mg of sodium per serving and negligible fat; one serving of instant noodles has 1000mg of sodium and is 20 percent fat.

According to a 2012 Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC – an intergovernmental organization made up of 26 nations) vulnerability analysis, “significant pests and disease, combined with reduced soil fertility, are among the many factors impacting agriculture production in the communities.”

While agricultural data is generally scant for this part of the world, community testimony abounds.

Yams and sweet potatoes in Isabel Province of Solomon Islands typically took three months from planting to harvest, with nearly all planted seeds yielding crops, but now, villagers say, they take at least five months, and less than half a planted field bears fruit.

According to FAO, “declining competitiveness of farmers and fishers in the Pacific islands has reduced their capacity to supply both export and domestic markets at competitive prices.”

FAO says the best way to reduce food import dependence is by increasing local farmers’ capacity, including improved transportation infrastructure to reach markets, and easy access to credit and agricultural inputs.

Experts say changes are needed in the islands’ food supply structure to support local agriculture.

A principal driver of the consumption of unhealthy imported food, said Hoejskov, is that healthy, domestically-produced food is neither plentiful nor cheap enough to compete with low-priced imports, and the time needed to deliver local perishables to isolated islands – up to a week by plane, boat, and truck – is too long for them to survive.

Subsidizing the local production of fruits and vegetables can be one solution, said Hoejskov.

In Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, IRIN found that while a packet of instant noodles costs 26-70 US cents, locally grown cassava or sweet potato tubers cost 21 times that amount.

The damage of disease

If current trends continue, the NCD burden – which now accounts for 70 percent of all deaths in nine out of 10 Pacific countries that have collected mortality data – will increase, warn experts.

Health workers told IRIN they are noticing younger and younger populations developing obesity and diabetes.

“The youngest person to come to the clinic with diabetes type 2 was only 11 years old,” said Kama, a Fijian nutritionist.

“Until very recently people didn’t even understand the negative health consequences of high fat, high sodium food imports,” said Stephen McGarvey, an epidemiologist and director of Brown University’s International Health Institute. WHO is currently working with Pacific Island governments to develop food safety standards, and ensure nutrition labels are accurate and understandable to their populations.

But others say the problem is broader.


Experts point to a number of needed policy shifts.

Fiji, French Polynesia, Nauru, and Samoa have increased taxes on sugary soft drinks in the past decade, but it is still too soon to measure any health impact, noted WHO.

The economic interests behind the food industries from countries exporting to the Pacific Islands make prohibitions on products deemed unhealthy difficult, according to Hoejskov.

For example, when Samoa tried to block turkey tails (a popular but gristly meat cut made up of 42 percent fat) from the US in 2007 for health reasons, the US brought the case before the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in 2012, the WTO gave Samoa 12 months to eliminate the ban in order to remain a member. By May 2013, turkey tails were back on the Samoan table.

Similarly, in 2004, Tonga’s Ministry of Health campaigned to ban mutton flaps – the 50 percent fat sheep belly offcuts generally used for dog food in the exporting country, New Zealand – which had become a major staple in Tongan households. But Tonga’s pledge to join the WTO eventually trumped health concerns, and policies were scrapped by the time it finally joined in 2007.

A decade later, trade is not making good health any easier, noted Roger Mathisen, a Hanoi-based nutrition consultant working in Southeast Asia.

“Emerging threats [include] the new and controversial dispute chapters in international trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) for the [food] industry to circumvent government’s sovereignty to enforce health and environment protection policies.”

Governments have tried to fight back.

“The Pacific region should not be treated as a dumping ground for unhealthy products that are unwanted in other countries,” declared governments in a statement concluding a Pacific sub-regional workshop in Fiji in 2013 on trade and NCDs.

Setting regional food standards is also key.

WHO has recommended Pacific governments not allow more than 1600mg of sodium per 100g of imported products such as bread, tinned meats, and instant noodles. Kiribas and Vanuatu are developing national food legislation with salt targets in early drafts, according to WHO.

“Most imported options are unhealthy, but at least governments can make sure that the products people buy comply to a certain level of healthiness… Hopefully, it won’t take long to have regulations in place,” said Hoejskov.


Solomon Islands Photo Essay for UNDP

8 August 2014 — Communities struggle to fight against sea level rise changes in Solomon. Here is a photo essay I took last week including shots from an area buffered by a tumultuous sea, known as tasi mauri, or sea that is alive. Communities receive only one or two boats during the entire seven month rainy season from from February to August each year, making their survival dependant on their ability to grow food.

Thailand: Domestic violence drives youths from their homes

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT — Driven from home by domestic violence, hundreds of adolescents join the grim underworld of street-living each year.

While sleeping outdoors, running from police and scrambling for food during the day may not seem like a path anyone would willingly choose, it is often the lesser of two evils.

“A lot of people don’t understand. The kids are not masochists, they put themselves in this danger because their previous situation was even worse,” said Ilya Smirnoff, the Executive Director of the Childline Foundation, a nonprofit that runs The Hub, a youth center near the Hua Lamphong train station.

Whereas child beggars feed a massive industry and survival demands of some families, not all children lost amid Bangkok’s squalor and splendor are trading innocence for charity. Another population exists among homeless youth that are driven into the streets by even more dire circumstances – physical and sexual abuse at home.

Domestic violence has been on the rise for the past decade, now affecting 30.8 percent, nearly one-third, of all households, according to a 2012 study by Mahidol University’s National Institute for Child and Family Development. Nearly half of all women report being physically or sexually abused by their partners. Sixty-one percent of families have a member suffering from alcohol abuse, which the children often say contributed to their parents’ violent tendencies.

“My father was addicted to alcohol and used to beat me when he was drunk,” said Nui, 19, a lanky adolescent with bleached hair. 

“I ran away from my home in Nakhon Sawan, when I was 12,” he explained, adding that as a boy he lived in the Hua Lampong train station and survived on scraps from restaurants and food carts.

But as children grow older, handouts become more scarce. Life on the street only gets tougher, and adolescents break off into small gangs for security, especially at night. They are easy prey for drug dealers and street hustlers, who encourage them to escape their worries and sell their bodies. While government-run shelters abound through the country, many youths are reluctant to willingly incarcerate themselves after experiencing so much freedom, leaving them with few options beyond scrounging for survival.

Nui ran away from Nakhon Sawan province and an abusive father at the age of 12. He survived off scraps at Hua Lamphong train station until he got older and the handouts disappeared. Last year someone stabbed him while he was sleeping.

Chronic survival mode
The Hub is a place where street youths can grab a  shower, wash their clothes, sleep and –  if they want – attend counselling and educational classes.

Given its location near the train station, it’s an area popular with transients, where cheap labour is always in demand and street walkers dominate the neighborhoods at night. The three-story building stands on a street where sex workers openly solicit for customers, and homeless teenagers huddle in groups at the corner of the block to numb their brains with deep huffs of glue.

The children have to leave their weapons – mostly pocket knives – at the door when they come in, according to The Hub’s rules. But staff don’t take them away out a pragmatic awareness that their lives on the street require strong survival skills.

“If the kids stop carrying weapons, stop being on the lookout, it is also dangerous for them because they will be desensitized to signs of danger,” Smirnoff said. “In street-living, it is always necessary for them to be aware and on the lookout.”

There is no end to the risks the children are exposed to on a daily basis, including “physical and sexual violence,  exploitation, drug abuse and the danger of becoming in conflict with the juvenile justice system as they may violate the law [to] survive,” said Sirirath Chunnasart, a child protection officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Thailand. 

Last year Nui was stabbed while sleeping.

“I live in constant fear, especially at night, so I try to stay in safe areas,” he said. “I was unconscious and someone brought me to the hospital.”

He spent four days in the hospital until being released back into the street. He still doesn’t know the reason.

Other predators the youths have to fend off are pimps and drug dealers.

Nui’s sister, 16, also escaped their father’s drunken rage to join her brother in Bangkok, where she sells fruit drinks and sometimes her body to survive.

In March, 20 cases of pimps selling children for sex were brought to court, according to Childline, who alerted the police after three young girls ran into The Hub, away from an older woman who had been pimping them for months. 

The woman was convicted and jailed, but the next week another pimp had already taken her place.

“It’s an endless cycle… These kids are subject to all kinds of atrocities,” Smirnoff said.

On the run with nowhere to go
Most of the youths are “social orphans,” meaning they have parents but come from dysfunctional, abusive, and often substance-addicted families, according to Childline.

“They have parents but no real kind of support,” Smirnoff explained.

They don’t want to return home to the abuse, and they are just as desperate to avoid official shelters.

While there are 29 government-run shelters in Bangkok housing around 7,000 children, the majority of street-living adolescents don’t want to go there as the institutions have strict rules commonly enforced with beatings, Chunnasart said.

“Staff at the institutions do not have skills to positively discipline children,” she said, explaining that corporal punishment is common, though lower since 2003’s Child Protection Act.

Still, physical violence doesn’t go over too well with children escaping its trauma at home.

Without any education, most can look forward to a future of menial work absent any skills.

The Hub offers standard, government-sponsored high school education classes and field trips for the children to see life off the streets in hope of inspiring some awareness of and drive toward alternatives.

But only about one-in-10 complete the courses.

“When you are in survival mode, your life is driven by fear,” Smirnoff explained.

And it’s impossible to separate the youths’ current problems from their past abuses, she added.

“You cannot see where the trauma ends and the street-living begins,” she said.

In April, police arrested Nui and a few of his friends for loitering in public while intoxicated. He spent 45 days in prison.

“Life doesn’t seem to give any breaks to these kids,” Smirnoff said.

* Article first published in Coconuts Media:


Honored Argentine Judge Now Faces Trial for Crimes Against Humanity Case

A judge previously rewarded by the Argentine Congress for his objectivity ruling in a crimes against humanity case now stands trial for committing minor procedural errors during one of the cases – an accusation he says is punishment for his indifference to political pressure during the rulings.

In 2012, Judge German Castelli ruled against 18 perpetrators accused of torture, murder and enforced disappearances at Argentina’s most sophisticated clandestine detention center – the Buenos Aires Navy School of Mechanics, or ESMA – during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.

Now, Castelli is being accused of negligence by the Council of Magistrates, a federal body created to appoint judges, protect their independence and sanction or remove them if deemed necessary.

“I am dismayed that a threat of this nature would be brought against me by the body that is meant to safeguard my independence,” said Castelli, who has been a judge for more than a decade. In 2012, Castelli and two colleagues ruled over the case of Juan Antonio Azic, a former guard at ESMA who kidnapped and illegally adopted the baby of a woman who disappeared at the hands of the military.

The baby, Carla Ruiz Dameri, grew up with Azic as her adoptive father and, as a grown woman during his trial, she requested he be granted bail to attend her wedding. The judges granted the request based on national laws that permit the accused to “fulfill their moral duties”.

The ruling was criticized by the politically powerful Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a Buenos Aires-based human rights NGO campaigning to reunite biological families and prosecute those who stole children during the military reign. Although the allegation was defended and then dropped in 2012, the charges were recently reignited by the Council of Magistrates based on minor procedural errors allegedly made in the run-up to the decision.

The administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has repeatedly come under fire for its attempts to undermine the independence of the judiciary, and Castelli’s case is just one example of the punishment awarded to judges who fail to respond to political pressure.

“Today we observe the frequent displacement of these actors [judges] that should have more protection in their work,” said Pablo Secchi, the executive director of Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine chapter of Transparency International which monitors corruption in the corporate and political arenas.

In recent years, human rights watchdogs and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have repeatedly questioned whether the Argentine government is overstepping its bounds with reforms to “democratize justice,” as President Kirchner calls it – which risks creating a faux justice system that grants impunity to government actors while remaining vulnerable to political and public pressure.

Due Process As A Mark of Democracy

When Ruiz-Dameri requested to Castelli and his colleagues that Azic be allowed to attend her wedding, the judges tried to disassociate their decision – which they said they wanted based on due process and basic criminal rights – from the horrified popular sentiment that suffocated the courtroom during each trial.

“We often had to tell people in the courtroom to be quiet. Often they applauded and cheered on witnesses, with the potential to disrupt the balance of the judgment,” said Castelli. “We had to make a decision about Azic. If for some unfathomable mystery of the human soul, an adult with all the freedoms a human being is entitled to – who has been the victim of a terrible crime [kidnapping] – loves the person who illegally adopted her and wants to invite him to her wedding, how can we as judges in a democracy intervene?”

The unpopular decision was instantly reflected in news headlines that day on Página/12, a popular national newspaper, which wrote: “An oppressor has been benefited.”

“The Court has assumed the task of facilitating and encouraging relationships, far from family, [which] has its origins in a very serious crime,” stated Estela Barnes de Carlotto, the head of the Abuelas, in her written denunciation of the judges’ ruling in 2012.

The Abuelas’ complaint also provoked the intervention by a federal court judge— whose permission was also needed to approve Azic’s temporary release— and who chose to deny it.

“Perhaps, we were too independent during the trial, or we were not reliable in the eyes of Estela de Carlotto [whose organization served as a plaintiff for almost every war crimes case]. Or perhaps there was just something in the judgment that she didn’t like,” said Castelli.

The complaint against the judges was filed only 48 hours before their verdict on the case was to be announced, creating significant pressure on them to make a decision favorable to the Abuelas. In the end, Azic was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the majority.

While the Abuelas’ concept of justice included harsh sentences for perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the role of the Council of Magistrates is to set limits on the ability of civil society to interfere in those judgments, according to legal experts.

“Security of tenure is key to ensure that judges can adopt independent decisions, without fear of suffering reprisals for rulings that may upset politicians or powerful individuals in a given context,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.

Yet the main charge brought against the judges by the Abuelas in 2012 is sidelined in the current complaint brought by the Council of the Magistrates. In the backdrop of government efforts to reduce the independence of the judiciary in the past few years, the current charges appear to Castelli to be an arbitrary mask for other motives.

“In this Kafkaesque drama, I am not even sure of what exactly I am being accused of,” said Castelli, who was one of the first Argentine judges to rule over the prosecution of crimes against humanity during the Dirty War. The crimes were brought back to the courts after a quarter of a century of amnesty for those who operated the brutal ESMA killing center.

Of the 18 cases that Castelli presided over, 12 defendants received life imprisonment, four were dealt heavy prison sentences and two were acquitted. In addition, Castelli submitted a request to the Supreme Court asking it to appeal to the UN to include political murders in the definition of crimes against humanity, as outlined by the UN’s Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

As many as 30,000 people in Argentina were murdered by the military junta for political reasons. But despite the gravity of crimes committed by the military generals and their civil accomplices, legal experts maintain that equality and due process for the accused is a fundamental tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international human rights laws.

Analysts say that the true mark of a democratic society rests on equal treatment for crimes, as well as “the treatment of the accused in alignment with the principles of human rights and the constitution regardless of the crime they are accused of,” Hector E. Schamis, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies, said at a 2013 conference for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The role of the judiciary is to make decisions in the most unbiased way possible, stressed Human Rights Watch. “Without such independence, judges would not be able to adopt unpopular decisions that are necessary in a democratic society to protect basic rights,” said Vivanco.

If Castelli and his two colleagues are sanctioned based on the pretext of technical error, “the message spreads to other federal judges in the country, especially those who judge crimes against humanity,” wrote Castelli in an appeal submitted in April to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul.

Last year, Knaul, on behalf of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a public complaint against the moves of the Argentine government to undercut judges countrywide.

“I call on Argentina to establish clear procedures and objective criteria for the dismissal and punishment of judges, and to ensure an effective process through which judges can challenge those decisions in order to safeguard judicial independence,” Knaul said in a statement issued in April of 2013.

“There could be no other reason to bring these charges now, except I suspect that we were too independent, and the Council has brought this unwarranted complaint against us to exert pressure,” Castelli added. Reforms to Democratize Justice

Castelli’s case is only one symptom of a wider movement by the government of Cristina Kirchner to reign in the judiciary. In May of last year, President Kirchner attempted to introduce six reforms to the Council of Magistrates that would grant the majority government power over nominations of Council members.

Currently, the Council is comprised of lawyers, academics, judges and lawmakers are who nominated by judges to the seats.

But if government controls the Council, the justice system will no longer be able to keep power of the ruling party in check, explained Human Rights Watch’s Vivanco.

“Controlling the judiciary is a way of ensuring impunity,” said Poder Ciudadano’s Secchi. “A judge who is conditioned in his decisions can hardly do his job properly.”

– See more at:


Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s ‘invisible children’ exploited for profit

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT — Chun is a lanky boy with skinny legs, a round face, and docile eyes that defy the brashness of his bleached-orange hair. The 13-year-old boy sits in a narrow alley outside his house, wearing only a baggy pair of red shorts and listening blankly to the nasal cackles of his neighbor, an overweight woman with more than a few missing teeth. She is relaying the gossip of western Bangkok’s 300-person Suksanari slum, an informal squatter community on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River crammed wall-to-wall with sheet metal, caged chickens and piles of garbage swarmed by flies.

His teenage sister, sitting next to the neighbour, casually slaps at the flies that land on her legs, which are already scarred with brown, pox-like marks from the insects and bacteria that come with living amidst mud, stagnant puddles and rotten garbage.

 Chun, 13, lives in a squatter camp with his family. He quit school this year to work the streets to support his large family. Bangkok/ May 2014

Chun, 13, lives in a squatter camp with his family. He quit school this year to work the streets to support his large family. Bangkok/ May 2014

But the insects are the least of the families’ worries.

With no income to support her 10 children, Chun’s mother routinely takes the youngest ones begging near the gilded shopping malls and tourist haunts of the Nana and Asoke areas. In February, Chun stopped going to school. “I left because my friends also did,” he said softly while looking away, ashamed.

Chun and his sister are among 30,000 minors in Thailand who beg in the streets to earn money for others at the expense of their futures, fueling exploitation that robs them of childhood and exposes them to abuse and potential damage for the rest of their lives – if they survive.

Most families in Chun’s community are from upcountry provinces – northern and northeastern rural areas where during the harvest season they live day-to-day off meager wages for manual labor – harvesting rice, corn and sugar cane – taking home no more than THB150 baht by each nightfall.

But during the off-season, without work, desperation drives them onto buses, minivans and trains to Bangkok in search of a means to survive.

While the more industrious ones make a living selling tamarind and beans from street stalls, the poorer members beg along the tourist-heavy haunts of Sukhumvit Road, sell their bodies in Nana and Asoke, or make flowers for their little ones to sell to motorists stopped in traffic.

“Most of these parents realise that an education will provide their children with a better future, but the daily economic needs of the family push their children out of school and onto the streets to work,” said Tim Tempany, the Technical Advisor for the Thailand program of Friends-International, an international, Cambodia-based NGO that has worked with Bangkok’s street children since 2006. Friends offers vocational training to older street dwellers and plans to open a restaurant to employ youth by the end of 2014.

An estimated 30,000 children live and/or work on the streets in Thailand, according to research by the Life Children Foundation, a local charity focused on child welfare.

The economic expansion of the past decade has primarily benefited urban centers, so now the grimy inner-city streets of Bangkok draw in bereft, cash-starved Cambodians (60 percent of the child street beggars) and Thais from other parts of the country (40 percent).

Contrary to popular belief, the begging profession is relatively profitable. While in Cambodia, the average daily wage of a non-maimed beggar is a few hundred riel – roughly THB2 – in Thailand children under 10 often earn double the minimum daily wage of THB300.

This creates a vigorous market for panhandling and illegal migration.

Cambodian children as young as infants are pulled away from homes and schools to work the streets of Bangkok, where the average daily wage is about THB100 (USD3) to spend their days and nights sharing pavement with sex workers and sex tourists.

The children are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, illness, disease, drug addiction and traffic accidents. Without an education, their prospects for the future are limited to potentially exploitative labor– work in the notoriously dangerous and informal sex, construction or fishing industries – or even worse, they become involved in criminal activities or drug dealing.


Bangkok’s invisible street faces

The begging children sit on street corners, at the bottom of BTS station stairs, with matted hair and grime-blackened clothes, often sleeping with hands folded in a traditional wai while before them, a plastic cup beckons passers-by. For all the tragedy of their situation, their constant presence places them beyond notice to many, as much a part of Bangkok’s public scenery as street food stalls, orange-vested motorbike taxis and mobile fruit carts.

“The public visibility of beggars is in direct contradiction to the dearth of information available about their lives,” Friends reported in 2006 . Eight years later, not much has changed, but the NGOs working with the children are determined not to let them fall through the cracks and hit the streets weekly to reach out, contact and identify the young hustlers, handing out cards with an emergency hotline number.

The 24/7 hotline receives at least 50 calls per month from people close to the streets, such as tuk-tuk drivers, food stand vendors or bar owners who have been trained to recognize a child in need, according to Friends.

“These calls come directly from the children, from their relatives, from concerned tourists, or from our network of community volunteers  trained to recognise and respond to children in [danger],” said Tempany, who explained that the on-call social workers then work with a network of local partners including NGOs, hospitals and government officials to provide immediate, on-the-ground assistance and protection for the child.

Addictions, such as gambling, can even sometimes drive relatives to exploit children from their own families for the hopes of financial gain.

High-stakes gambling

Sopheap, a wrinkled elderly woman with short, greying hair, sits at the bottom of BTS Nana stairs with her sleeping granddaughter at her side. (Her name and others in this report have been changed as a condition to discussing their stories or to protect the children’s identities.)

Sopheap says the girl is 3, but she looks more like 7. An empty plastic cup sits in front of them, and the older woman looks pleadingly at pedestrians descending from the station’s stairs.

“Please,” she says, motioning towards her granddaughter’s bandaged foot prominently splayed on the pavement, “my granddaughter is injured.”

Sopheap is a chronic gambler from Poipet – the infamous casino resort at the Thai-Cambodian border –and has been transporting her five grandchildren to Bangkok to panhandle since 2010, according to Friends.

“We have known her a long time. Through our network of partner organisations based in Cambodia, we helped her four grandsons to reintegrate into school in Cambodia, providing them with nonformal education, and paying their school fees and uniforms,” said Orawan Saowapat, the Outreach Team Leader for Friends-International in Bangkok.

But when the grandmother’s gambling gravy dried up again, she pulled them out and packed them off on buses to Pattaya to scour the streets for soft-hearted tourists.

“She doesn’t care about their futures, she just wants to gamble. Without them, she wouldn’t be able to support her gambling habit,” Orawan explained.

They have since been taken by officials from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and local police to a government-run reception home for boys  There they will receive food and shelter before they are eventually returned to Cambodia.

Friends-International social workers visit three of these reception homes each week, providing informal education, life-skills training and recreation activities to unregistered and vulnerable migrant children like the four grandsons of Sopheap, helping them better prepare for their return and reducing the likelihood they’ll return to the streets.

Without safety nets, families in free-fall

Not to say all guardians are guilty of this kind of negligence – some work but are simply unable to make ends meet.

Chanarang sits on a rattan mat with his 6-year-old daughter at the mouth of the infamously lewd Soi Cowboy.

“During the day I work pushing carts at Pak Khlong Talad,” he said of his work near the old city’s flower market. “But I don’t earn enough to support my family.”

A single father since his wife left him two years ago, Chanarang said his 13-year old son lives with Chanarang’s mother in the northern town of Nakhon Lampang near Chiang Mai, while his younger daughter stays with him.

“Now I am working nights begging to earn enough money to afford the transportation to return to Lampang with my daughter,” Chanarang explained.

While life may not be much easier up north, at least they will be off the street. While Thailand has been considered an “upper-middle income country” by the World Bank since 2011, 5.4 million people still live on less than about THB30 per day – one of the root causes of urban migration and the flow of beggars.

Most panhandlers commute up to one hour by bus to work in the Sukhumvit area because “they make more money here,” Orawan said. “Especially on Soi Cowboy; drunk tourists give a lot.”

On a good night, the children can make up to THB1,000, according to NGOs.

“By giving money to begging children, a market is created that drives children from poor families out of schools and onto the streets,” Tempany said. “And begging children turn into begging adults who can no longer make the income they once did because they are no longer as cute, and who, without any education, have very few employment options available to them – and so they turn to crime or potentially exploitative labour ,” he added.

If no one gave money, there would be no market and thus no incentive for parents to manipulate their own children and force them to troll the streets to elicit sympathy.

“When you give money to children, you actually hurt them by keeping them in dangerous situations on the streets,” states the motto of Friends’ nine-year-old Child Safe International Campaign.

Reducing the appeal removes the market, and forces families to find another way to support themselves.

Friends helps parents find jobs through business microlending and training in how to make marketable household and fashion products, such as wallets crafted from recycled materials, which are then sold in Friends’ shops. But these services can only be made available for the Thai population.

The majority of Cambodian street kids endure ad-hoc police sweeps of beggars, leading to a three-month stint in a reception home  before they are repatriated back to Cambodia. Shortly after deportation, they once again scramble onto buses back to Bangkok and their usual street corners.

“It can be a very difficult cycle to break…but we do have many successful cases of children and youth, both Thai and foreign, who successfully reintegrate into their families and into school or vocational training,” Tempany said. “These cases make all the effort worthwhile and are what pulls our team of social workers out onto the streets every day.”

But getting close to see the grime and hardship of the underworld street life first-hand is no easy task.

Growing up surrounded by drugs and sex workers

The majority the children do not like working in the streets but do so because they feel their families depend on it, according to a 2006 study by the UN Inter-Agency Project  to Combat  Human  Trafficking.

Boupha, a scrawny, malnourished girl of 10 who looks more like 6, begs 20 feet below her mother, who carries her baby sister and sits huddled with their bags on the walking bridge near BTS Asoke.

On a recent day, she was sprawled face down with a cup next to her.

“She is just pretending to be asleep,” a scantily clad sex worker loitering nearby explained.

“[They] face many risks while living on the street: physical violence, sexual violence, inability to access social welfare services, exploitation, drug abuse…” said  Sirirath Chunnasart, a child protection officer with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Even the youngest children end up suffering unimaginably.

“We have seen children as young as 5 sniffing glue,” Tempany said.

In addition, street children are prone to many illnesses, according to UNICEF and NGO reports.

“The health problems that begging children face are generally caused by poor hygiene, staying on busy street areas with a lot of traffic for long periods and malnutrition, leading to a variety of stomach illnesses, skin infections, and respiratory diseases,” Tempany explained.

In another part of Bangkok, under the Saphan Phut bridge along the Chao Phraya, one child is short for his 9 years and looks as if he’s never had a bath. His face is smudged with black dirt, and he is covered in grime.

“He was born under the bridge and has lived here since,” Orawan said.

If the boy was ever given a name, no one knows it. So they simply call him “Phut,” after the bridge.

He is surrounded by a crowd of five older street children, including  a deaf-mute teenage boy. They run towards Orawan and the team, who are carrying an modified “Snakes and Ladders” board game – it is hygiene focused, so players move forward if they land on squares where they have to wash their hands, and backwards on eating foods with worms in them.

Surprisingly, it entices even the older, punk-ish looking urchins to gather around the game to play, laughing jubilantly as they roll the dice.

“We forget that in the end they are just children,” Tempany said. “They still just need to play.”

Sadly, fighting for survival in the streets doesn’t offer much time for that.

If you see a child in a hazardous situation and believe they need help, please call the 24-hour hotline for Friends’ ChildSafe network in Bangkok: 086 971 8861 or 1800 777 211 (free call from a landline). To reach the ChildSafe members of the Royal Thai Police, call 1300.

For more information or to shop for goods that will contribute to alternative incomes for low-income Thai families, contact Friends at:

3/8 Soi Sukhumvit 49, Sukhumvit Rd, Khlongton Nua, Watthana, Bangkok 10110

Tel: 02 260 4745