Fifty-two children have been caught in a dispute between a Siem Reap orphanage and Sunrise Children’s Village, an Australian-based NGO to which the government gave control of the orphanage last year.
Amid a web of allegations from both sides, two orphanage residents alleged last week that Sunrise, among other things, is trying to oust Thou Rem, a caretaker who some call “Mother,” who has taken control of the orphanage.
Accompanied by Satoshi Ito, who identified himself as a Japanese humanitarian, 17-year-old Ki Kimly and 18-year-old Ki Chantha said in interviews last week that Sunrise came to Siem Reap in November, with the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs, to take control of their public orphanage.
The girls said Sunrise tried to fire Thou Rem, who has worked at the orphanage since 1988, and alleged the NGO has been withholding food, water and utilities because the orphans have refused to move to Sunrise’s newly constructed facility.
In a statement received last week, orphanage representatives echoed the claim, stating orphans have not received water, firewood or rice from Sunrise since January.
The statement went on to say that Sunrise’s “siege tactics” would eventually force children to leave “because there is nothing more to eat at [the orphanage].”
Thou Rem said last week that she worked at Sunrise for a short time but was wrongfully accused of theft and that the NGO tried to fire her.
When that was unsuccessful, she said that the Ministry of Social Affairs asked her to retire. Fearing job loss and separation from “[her] children,” she took control of the orphanage.
Geraldine Cox, president of Sunrise Children’s Village, which is part of the Australia Cambodia Foundation, said last week the group’s claims are “completely ridiculous,” adding that Sunrise has not limited the orphanage’s access to electricity, water or food.
Sunrise came to Siem Reap in 2004 with a memorandum of understanding from the ministry to manage the orphanage, Cox said. The group planned to integrate two existing orphanages into Sunrise Children’s Village, she said last week.
“Legally under the memorandum of understanding, [the orphanage is] ours,” Cox said.
Sim Son, Siem Reap provincial governor, said Sunrise received permission from the ministry to control and monitor the orphanage “because [they] need the orphanage to be developed as well,” he said.
Cox said orphanage workers were offered positions at the new Sunrise facility, but Thou Rem refused because the new position did not allow her access to the group’s finances. Instead, Thou Rem persisted in running the orphanage herself, Cox said.
“We offered [Thou Rem] a job. We told her that she could work with us, but [we] would not let her work with donations or money, and she refused,” Cox said.
She said Thou Rem has padlocked the gate, blocking Sunrise staff from the orphanage and described the woman’s presence at the orphanage a “bit of a mystery.”
“Ms Thou Rem, was never the boss [of the orphanage], she was a caretaker that took over,” Cox said.
Thou Rem denied she had padlocked the gate.