With the Cambodian government, communities and families having failed the children who are preyed upon by paedophiles in Sihanoukville, an arts project offers a way out
Published on January 2, 2008
Innocence lost, reason for HOPE
Artist Roger Dixon, the founder of the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project, oversees his young charges’ work at Serendipity Beach’s Serendip Bar, which also houses a gallery of paintings for sale.
The beach has been cleaned of debris, the sea sparkles, towels are being laid out on recliners. It's another day at Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville. It's a tourist brochure in living colour.
But take a closer look.
Two 50-year-old farang men mingle with the sun worshippers. Gripped tightly by the hand, their beach consorts are male children, barely 11 years old.
It is said that paedophiles thrive on Sihanoukville's sea, sand and anything-goes environment. In the capital, Phnom Penh, the battle against sexual deviants has driven most of them underground following a well-publicised clampdown after critical reports in an appalled international press.
Cambodia's southern beach resort, though, has attracted less official attention.
But a group of children who earn their living as vendors on the beach are turning the tide under the guiding hand and watchful eye of what is known locally as Ibiza's art gang.
Founded in 2005 by artist Roger Dixon, a 63-year-old Englishman, the Cambodian Children's Painting Project is headquartered in the Serendip Bar at the western end of the beach.
Several of its walls are the children's art gallery, with examples of the paintings offered as saleable souvenirs hawked along the beach.
About 100 children, ages five to 15, are registered with the project. They are mentored, fed and given canvases and a wide choice of oils and brushes to create their miniature masterpieces. Each child is honour-bound to attend the local school for four hours a day.
Dixon, who spends half the year in Sihanoukville and the rest at his home and art gallery on the Spanish island of Ibiza, started the project just over two years ago.
"I came here to paint, and quite a few kids came up to me and said how they wanted to do the same," he says.
"They had all been peddling stuff on the beach for a few riel, which they took home to their families, often begging a handful of rice or the scraps from a tourist table. Many came from violent and abusive homes; none was getting the semblance of a formal education. Reading and writing was what 'other kids' could do.
"So we committed ourselves to assisting children who were neglected by their families, communities and governments and who had long since slipped through the weak social safety nets, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation."
Dixon was also quick to recognise the ravages of malnutrition among the children and embarked on systematically raising funds to ensure every child had healthy teeth and gums and at least one good meal a day. His pragmatic approach and the recognition he deservedly received from tourists meant the project quickly outgrew its beach location, so he negotiated a deal with the Khmer family who rented the Serendip Bar, sharing their space and, he hoped, its customers.
It was a perfect arrangement, and within a year he received full non-governmental organisation (NGO) status. Creating an NGO from scratch is an achievement in itself, but with a growing number of children relying on his scant resources, he decided to call on local assistance.
Sokha Peng became the charity's director and Pen Sopheap took on the role of caretaker and helper at the gallery. Friends from Ibiza also chipped in with regular visits, and longer-term help came from the likes of 60-year-old Anna Janssen, whose baking skills are a daily treat for the children and bring in extra cash through the sale of her chocolate-chip brownies and other confections to nearby hotels.
Barry Flanagan, the renowned Irish artist and prominent member of Ibiza's art gang, has also donated money to the cause, giving the project US$7,000 (Bt212,000) and his wholehearted blessing for bringing art and education into the lives of so many dispossessed children.
The tipping point, though, was the arrival on the scene of Felix Brooks-Church, 30. Born in Ibiza but educated in the US in computer sciences and graphics, he moved back to Ibiza to be close to his artist parents and ran a beach bar for a couple of years.
"I've known Roger and Anna all my life," he says, "and they suggested I come and see what they were doing. Within days of my arrival I was convinced I was in the right place at the right time. These kids are so keen to learn. They come here with no expectations, only a child's natural-born inquisitiveness and desire to do something well and enjoy themselves."
Brooks-Church has brought new impetus to the project.
"The project is opening a window of opportunity for them, allowing them to be creative and express themselves, to earn an income and, most importantly, to learn about other alternative possibilities for empowerment through work, education and art."
The paintings, unframed, sell for $4, with half going to the child artist and the rest towards project financing and a communal education fund to cover school costs for all the children. So far they have produced well over 8,000 paintings and sold more than a half.
The children represent an early-warning system against the ever-present threat of sex tourists. If they see or hear of any suspicious behaviour they immediately report it to one of the project's staff members, who contacts the authorities.
"It's one of our golden rules that the children do not work the beach after sunset," says Brooks-Church. "Most nights my last job is to patrol the beach and stop any kids who are out there and ask why they're not at home."
Donations can be made to the project through the CCPP website, ArtCambodia.org.
The writer is an assistant editor of the South Eastern Globe, a monthly Cambodian newsmagazine where this article first appeared.
Special to The Nation