Battambang province – Taking a break from clearing scrub land at a farm on the Thai border, Sao Sony would retreat into the rudimentary wooden shack where he slept, and grind up a maroon-colored methamphetamine tablet.
Tipping the powder into the bottom of an empty plastic water bottle, the 14-year-old pursed his lips around a straw protruding from its neck. A friend of the same age would hold a cigarette lighter beneath the bottle, allowing Sao Sony to draw the milky-colored smoke into his lungs, before the friend did the same.
The hit gave Sao Sony a sense of euphoric confidence and a drug-enhanced rush of physical energy that helped him labor through the day to support his family.
Sao Sony, now a recovered methamphetamine addict, is not alone.
Roughly 80 percent of adult laborers and an unknown number of child laborers in the Battambang districts of Phnom Proek and Sampov Loun are smoking metamphetamine, or yaba, to increase their working ability on agro-industry farms, laborers said during recent interviews.
And senior Cambodian anti-drug officials say there are strong indications to suggest that the majority of laborers who toil on the large agricultural farms in northwestern Cambodia are using the drug.
“It helped me work long hours,” Sao Sony, now 16, said in an interview last month at the Morodak Angkor Plastic Arts Training Center, which cares for recovering drug addicts in Battambang.
“I felt very strong, not sleepy. But my body became thinner,” he said, recalling his experiences.
Clad in beige shorts and a red T-shirt adorned with a kitten’s face, Sao Sony slipped between complete focus and moments of total distraction, when he would turn in his chair and stare up at the ceiling behind him.
“There were three other children working with me,” he said. “They were all using drugs.”
Ten of the 15 laborers on the farm where he worked in Phum Samseb village, Phnom Proek district, were taking yaba, Sao Sony said.
The yaba problem is prominent along the Thai border, where drugs seep across checkpoints and into the growing cross-border agricultural economy where there is hard work to be done, said Lour Ramin, deputy director of the National Authority for Combating Drugs.
“Most workers along the border are taking drugs,” he said. “We will lose our young generation, and we will lose our labor force, if we allow drug use to be widespread.”
In the dusty center of Sampov Loun district town, a blue tractor donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen stands unused on a brick and stone podium.
The former Khmer Rouge town is surrounded by a vast agricultural community spanning Sampov Loun and Phnom Proek districts, where laborers toil for just over $1 a day on corn farms owned by former rebel officials.
The farms are several hundred hectares in size and agricultural machinery is scarce.
Many of the laborers migrate to the area to work for four month periods, from provinces where they have often lost their land due to debts and bad harvests.
On the Battambang farms, laborers said, they live in communal shacks and earn barely enough to eat.
The yaba epidemic here has prompted fears that migrant laborers who become addicted will bring the drug problem back with them to their home provinces.
Laborers were not interviewed on the farms themselves, as the Thai border area is heavily mined.
At 4 pm, however, laborers spill by the dozens onto the dirt roads and board waiting pick-ups, as sacks of corn are hauled onto trucks to be transported to warehouses.
Yaba use among laborers in the area “is becoming bigger and bigger,” said Nit Proh, 33, a laborer in Pram Pi village, Phnom Proek district.
“Ten out of ten forest cutters smoke,” he said “It doesn’t make more money, it makes more problems…. When they smoke, they don’t sleep at night, they steal things.”
In Tuol village, Chakrei commune, Phnom Proek district, a group of about eight children marched at a frantic pace down the dirt road leading to the village, where frog hunters who appeared to be in their early 20s sat on a wooden bench, their eyelids drawn wide apart, their pupils dilated and their faces glistening with sweat.
A horde of villagers stood packed into a wooden hut to watch a game show played at the TV’s full volume, while outside the village, loud music blared from several stilt houses along the road. Despite the remoteness, the atmosphere in the town was oddly frenetic.
Korea, who chose only to give his nickname, sat on top of a large pile of corn inside a warehouse off the main road, having smoked two methamphetamine pills since breakfast.
As the slim 26-year-old laborer from Kompong Speu province fiddled with the ears of a low quality corn, he said he smoked yaba every day of the month when he had enough money. That diet would be reduced to smoking 20 days out of the month when he had less.
“After I take drugs, I feel stronger and I want to work,” said Korea, who did not consider himself an addict.
“I don’t know about the advantages or disadvantages, but it’s my custom,” he said. “If we knew how many ingredients it took, we would make it ourselves,” he added, as children milled around and his friends and the warehouse owner listened in.
Eighty percent of laborers in the district smoke yaba, including the three of his friends lying in nearby hammocks in the warehouse, Korea said.
“I know some drug addicts [who have] become crazy or have problems with mental health, or steal from other villagers,” he said. “For myself, I don’t commit crimes.”
Yaba use is increasing in the district, as people are beginning to buy small amounts from dealers and sell them to their friends.
Some military police and government staff use the drug, and the bigger drug dealers “are sometimes government officials, police,” he said.
Drug control officials say police complicity in drug dealing appears to be common place.
“Many, many people repeatedly keep telling us…that one of the main problems is that police are directly selling drugs, or turning a blind eye to people selling drugs,” said Graham Shaw, of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Phnom Penh.
Although reported police complicity appears most common in urban areas, it seems to be increasing in the countryside, Shaw said.
Metamphetamine use is already epidemic in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang provinces and Pailin municipality, and is likely to reach the same level in other rural provinces in coming years, Shaw said.
In the countryside, methamphetamine is often touted as a powerful vitamin, and many users are unaware of the mental and physical damage that it causes, he said.
Korea’s boss, a private businessman who owns the warehouse and buys corn from the farms to sell to Thailand, said that while some farm owners buy drugs to sell to their workers, he did not.
“I try my best to explain to my workers not to use drugs,” said the owner, who declined to give his name.
Yin Dara, a doctor in Pich Chenda commune, Phnom Proek district, said most villagers in the area “use drugs and keep quiet.”
“I am very concerned about the young generation,” he said, adding that malnutrition and lack of education are also major problems in the area.
“There is a school here, but the teacher also has a funding problem, so the teacher leaves school to work on the farms.”
The drug problem in Sampov Loun began three years ago after the establishment of the vast industrial farms, said Chan Tam, second deputy district police chief.
Police have met with the farm owners, and asked them to stop their workers using drugs, Chan Tam said.
In recent months district police have cracked down on drug use, arresting dealers and educating smokers, he said, adding that the drug problem is not as big as before and farm owners don’t provide their laborers with drugs.
Some laborers said otherwise.
Kim Sophy, 32, works for four month stints on a farm in Sampov Loun district 21 km from the Thai border, where the farm owner, a former rebel official, provides new loggers with free metamphetamine at first, she said.
“Sometimes the landowners give them ten pills in advance to encourage cutting,” said the mother of three in an interview in Ksach Poy village, Wat Kor commune, Battambang district.
“After that, the workers need to buy by themselves, because they are addicted already.”
Phuy Kim, 57, works on a soy bean farm in Sampov Loun, where about 35 of the 70 laborers are under 16, and many of the younger laborers use methamphetamine, he said.
Standing in a crowded pick-up on the way back to his Banteay Meanchey province home, he said he had managed to save between $2.5 and $5 during one month on the farm.
The farm owners “don’t mind” about drug use, Phuy Kim said. “They only care whether you can work or not.”
Rocked by Thailand’s massive methamphetamine addiction problem, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a violent crackdown in 2003 on drug dealing that left more than 2,000 people dead in about three months.