Children tend a vegetable garden at Sovann Komar children’s village in Phnom Penh. (Photo: Facebook)
Two years ago, Sothea Arun was feted by the international media. He had survived the Khmer Rouge, built an orphanage founded by an American heiress, and counted the Jewish community among his benefactors for schools and a health clinic. And he was living large.
But his fall from grace, like those before him, was not totally unexpected.
A year-long internal inquiry by the Sovann Komar children’s village in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has concluded that its former executive director — Sothea Arun — and his three colleagues had lived the good life while he allegedly stole at least US$1.4 million designated for the children.
But far worse was that it had “uncovered widespread evidence of horrific child abuse” along with financial frauds that ranged from land deals to theft.
Sovann Komar launched the inquiry, conducted by a legal team with power of attorney, after Sothea Arun was sacked in August 2019 following complaints.
“Mr. Sothea Arun lived an extravagant lifestyle paid for by stealing funds designated for orphaned and abandoned children,” Sovann Komar said in a statement published by the government-friendly news portal Fresh News.
“While he lived like a lord, the children of Sovann Komar were neglected and abused both sexually and physically by Sothea Arun and his staff.”
He built a villa “fit for a lord” that came with a swimming pool and a karaoke room.
Bank statements showed several transactions worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars that included $433,575 transferred to his personal bank account at the Cambodia-based Canadia Bank.
Sothea Arun, who was on a salary of $1,700 a month, has denied the accusations.
Support of heiress
Sothea Arun’s biggest supporter was Elizabeth Ross Johnson, heiress to the fortunes of US healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson. She founded Sovann Komar, which means Golden Children.
The Cambodia Daily reported back in 2005 that “Johnson was inspired to found the charity by her friendship with Sothea Arun,” who was then named executive director.
“These children have the potential to create social change. To start companies. To run for government. To change the whole future of their country,” she was quoted as saying from the promotional material.
Sothea Arun was then seen as an accomplished man who survived a genocide and sought to save girls from prostitution by building orphanages, schools, clinics and providing neglected children with a future.
Johnson had good intentions. She passed away three years ago.
Pol Pot retreated into Cambodia’s remote west after the 1978 Vietnamese invasion when Sothea Arun was still a child. His family were all killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was reportedly living in a forced labor camp in Phum Thom, 16 kilometers southeast of Phnom Penh.
There he would later establish his own projects, which included a school, a clinic and an orphanage, while working full time as the executive director of Sovann Komar in Phnom Penh.
In 2006, he won support for his Phum Thom projects from two US groups, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the non-profit Jewish Helping Hands, which was led by a one-time pulpit rabbi.
“Honestly, I don’t know about the Jewish religion,” Sothea Arun told The Times of Israel. “But I do know millions of Jewish people were killed in World War II and it was similar to Cambodia.”
Sovann Komar said the US embassy in Phnom Penh had been made aware of the allegations and added that it was working with the authorities to bring Sothea Arun to justice.
But the statement added that he was still operating orphanages not affiliated with Sovann Komar despite the evidence of serious crimes against children and recommendations from two prosecutors that he be held in pre-trial detention.
Bring on the judge
“It is clear that Mr. Sothea Arun exploited his position as executive director to become a millionaire while Cambodian children suffered,” the Sovann Komar statement said.
“In addition to fraud and misuse of organizational funds, Mr. Sothea Arun engaged in corruption, nepotism and fraudulent land deals, including creating fake sellers and pocketing large commissions from land deals done on behalf of the NGO.”
The Cambodian judicial system has copped a lot of criticism over the last two decades. A legal system founded on traditional Khmer values was overwhelmed by French colonialists. Add a splash of Vietnamese and Russian Cold War-style rules, and finally the United Nations — and it does have some unique issues.
There is a lot at stake here. Reputations aside, presumption of innocence is now a legal right in Cambodia, but Sothea Arun has already been found guilty by his employer of some heinous charges and been denounced in a very public way.
This could be an extraordinary trial of corruption and sexual abuse but one that belongs before a judge and not the court of public opinion.