Serei Saophoan district, Banteay Meanchey – Whether for crashing SUVs into temples, waving guns outside karaoke bars or drag racing around the National Assembly building, the pampered offspring of Cambodia’s new-money elite have made the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years.
While an older generation who came of age in tougher times fret about the nation’s future being put in such irresponsible hands, military police Lieutenant Team Pheakdey says he already has the solution.
Outside his office during an interview last week, 125 shaven-headed young men in identical black tracksuits sweat their way through drills and maneuvers, barked at all the while by a fierce-looking drill sergeant.
These are some of an increasing number of unruly young people from across the nation for whom wealthy parents are deciding tough love is the only solution.
They took drugs, drank too much, were “out of control” or were “causing too many problems at home,” according to Team Pheakdey, the director of this boot camp, located inside the provincial military police headquarters in Banteay Meanchey province. “I believe we can train them to be better people,” he said.
For the price of a “donation” by the parents, which Team Pheakdey said generally begins at around $50 per month, the teenagers in the Banteay Meanchey camp get enforced military training, rigorous exercising and self-criticism sessions seven days a week.
“There is no luxury here for anyone,” he said. “When you come in that gate, everyone is equal.”
They come here for a minimum of five months at a time, or as long as it takes before their supervisors decide that they have seen the error of their ways. Once you enter the center in Banteay Meanchey there is no leaving it, with occasional, regulated family visits the only contact with the outside world.
The center was originally started by the military in 2002 to house drug addicts and homeless people who fell outside of the jurisdiction of the court system, he explained, but as word of its success in rehabilitating “hopeless” cases spread, wealthy parents began to inquire.
Today, the vast majority come from affluent backgrounds and include the children of high-ranking officials.
“It is not fair to say who they are but there are children of some of the most rich and powerful people in Cambodia,” Team Pheakdey said.
A poster on the wall in his office reads “Without Discipline, there is no life at all.” Discipline, he said, is the key in the center’s success.
“When parents have no means by which they can control [their children], they bring them here,” he said. “We cannot guarantee anything but in general we have about an 80 percent success record.”
Keo Sopheak, 21, the son of Phnom Penh diamond traders, has been in the Banteay Meanchey camp for six months now.
“My parents told me I was going on a holiday and the next thing I knew I was here,” he said in an interview. “I was angry at first that they had tricked me, but now I can see they were right.”
Keo Sopheak’s main problem, he said, was his use of yama and methamphetamines.
“I could not resist when my friends offered it to me,” he said, adding that the exercise routines and training in Banteay Meanchey meant that he is almost over his addiction now. “I am not fully healed yet,” he said, “but when I get out of here I will never take drugs again.”
Moung Danha, 19, whose parents are business people, has been in the center for three months.
“I caused many problems for my parents so they made me come here,” he said. “It’s OK and I am learning to change.” He said control was enforced at the center mostly by close supervision.
Team Pheakdey also said there is no corporal punishment at the center. “We give them physical and psychological training and educate them about social and ethical issues,” he said.
National Youth Association President Him Yun said Monday that the need for such centers as the one in Banteay Meanchy should serve as a wake-up call to parents.
“Too many of these children are being spoilt and get everything they want, and end up contributing to a lot of social ills in Cambodia” he said Monday.
“The morality of some of these [youth] is not very good and sometimes their parents set a bad example,” he said.
“Sending a difficult youth to a facility like this might not work on its own if damage is already done,” he added.
National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha said Monday that the Banteay Meanchey facility is one of two run by the military police, the other being in Battambang.
“Our main purpose for setting them up was to help people using drugs,” he said, adding that in the future, such centers would ideally be located away from military police headquarters.
“Too many [such centers] might affect police work,” he said. But in general, demand for such facilities outstrips supply, according to Team Pheakdey.
“Today in this country, the numbers of homeless young people and drug addicts are going down but numbers of rich children causing serious trouble is growing fast,” he said.
“Modern Cambodian society is full of temptation [for the young and wealthy],” he said. “They are having a great time, going to discos and karaoke, and a lot of them start taking drugs. Here we train them the same as military police, make them fit, make them sweat out the badness.”
Its purpose is not, however, to turn out military men.
“A few have gone on to a life in the military but they are the minority,” Team Pheakdey said. “The only outcome we work towards is that when the young people go home, they are good and well-behaved.”
“When they are leaving, we tell them to behave…or you will be sent back here again,” Team Pheakdey said. “That is usually enough to deter them.”
The hard-jawed drill sergeant who has just put the young men outside through their paces, 26-year-old Srey Dy Monydavid, is himself a past inmate of the center.
“It was tough at the time, but I was better for it,” he said. “Now I want to help to train others.”