Updated: January 30, 2018 08:22 AM GMT
Cambodian National Authority for Combating Drugs officials prepare drugs for a destruction ceremony to mark the UN's International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Phnom Penh on June 26, 2017. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
It's been almost 20 years since Sor Piseth took his first drugs. Ever since, he has found it extremely difficult to stay away from both heroin and methamphetamine. Now the 38-year-old Cambodian is trying to quit. He knows it's the only right thing to do to make sure he sees his children grow up.
"If I follow the doctor's advice, I will live longer," Sor Piseth said near his house, a shed surrounded by garbage in one of Phnom Penh's slums. "If I continue to use drugs as before, I will walk towards my own death."
For just over a year, Cambodia has been cracking down on drugs with more vigor than ever before. Inspired by the war on drugs waged by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 2016, the Cambodian government says the crackdown is necessary to eliminate drug trafficking and track down producers.
The result speaks volumes. In 2017, Cambodian police made more than 17,700 drug-related arrests, an increase of 80 percent from the previous year.
While the government seems satisfied with the results, health organizations and community workers are far from happy. They complain that users are being forced to go into hiding and that it has become difficult to offer them the treatment they need to get rid of their addiction.
As a community worker, Long Chan has been helping drug users in Phnom Penh for five years. Together with his colleague, he helps about 300 addicts each year. About 100 of them were arrested and locked up in 2017.
"Some of them were arrested after committing a small crime such as stealing," he explained. "Others were arrested and punished for drug dealing."
Long Chan said Cambodian authorities are quick to label someone as a dealer. "If a user has two packages of drugs and plans to give one to a friend, he can be sentenced to one year in prison for drug dealing."
The crackdown has scared drug users, with many doing all they can to stay away from the police. Sor Piseth, who gathers a small income from collecting cans and plastic bottles, is no exception. He used to live in a shelter for drug addicts but living there increased the risk of getting arrested, so now he is hiding in a dirty slum.
Although he hasn't been arrested in the current crackdown, he was caught by the police two or three years ago. "That time they took me to the police district office. After a few nights, I was released."
He knows that if he gets caught now, it's unlikely that he will get away so easily.
Human rights organizations and other NGOs say the crackdown is leading to serious problems in Cambodia's prisons. Before the anti-drug campaign, prisons were already overcrowded and faced a lack of drinking water, poor hygiene and limited access to health care.
Locking up thousands of drug users is only making the prison problems worse, activists say, while drug-related treatment is hardly available behind bars.
"Treatment is only possible in prison if you are rich and can afford it," community worker Long Chan said. "Otherwise, only very basic medicines such as paracetamol are available."
The situation is even worse for drug users that suffer from HIV or tuberculosis. Treatment for these diseases is almost nonexistent behind bars.
"Users easily get sick and die in prison," Long Chan said.
Friends International, an NGO that helps street children and youths, provided support to 3,262 drug users in 2017. It offers education and vocational training and refers drug users to methadone maintenance therapy or to hospitals. It also provides clean needles and syringes to prevent HIV from spreading.
The NGO says the crackdown has made it more difficult to reach drug users, with many hiding from the police and moving from place to place.
The result is that Friends International could help only 5 percent of drug users twice a week in 2017, down from 40 percent in 2016. "This means they lack drug health education and have less access to clean needles and syringes," said spokesman James Sutherland.
While the drug crackdown may be new for Cambodia, the Southeast Asian country is often described as a trafficking hub for drugs from Myanmar, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With many Cambodians being unemployed and uneducated, the market can be attractive for those who wish to sell heroin or methamphetamine.
Just like many other observers, Chob Sokchamreun declines to comment on the crackdown. But the executive director of Khana, an organization that mainly focuses on providing HIV prevention, does say that drug control is never easy and that a wide approach is necessary to contain drug abuse.
"You need a team of people: a psychiatrist, a counsellor, a good medical doctor, a good nurse. Now you have health centers where's there often no doctor available, only nurses. But how can a nurse provide good counsel to a drug user?"
Blaming drug users is not the right way to fix the problem, he said. "Instead you need to help them. Give them a hand and give them time to give up drugs. Drug treatment can take 12 to 24 months and the rate of success is very small, but we have to do it. Support from the community is required because it's all about behavior change."
With his wife pregnant with his third child, Sor Piseth hopes he will succeed in changing his behavior. He goes to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital regularly to receive methadone treatment. But giving up drugs is far from easy.
"When I use it, I feel energy and I feel the responsibility to go to work," he said. "When I don't use it, I just feel sleepy."
* For safety reasons, the names of some people interviewed for this story have been changed.