Holiday in Cambodia?

06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times ran an article in the travel section about gay hot spots in Cambodia: " in their 30s and 40s wearing unbuttoned collared shirts and checkered krama scarves sipped fruity cocktails and jostled for space with the young Khmer crowd."

I couldn't help but feel a certain dissonance because it is exactly this demographic that might best remember the Dead Kennedys' song "Holiday in Cambodia." When the song was released in 1980 it felt rebellious to sing along with the refrain: "It's a holiday in Cambodia, it's tough kid but it's life." And while for tourists the idea of a Cambodian vacation has become an idyll, for young Cambodians, the Dead Kennedys' lyrics are still very much alive.

"A holiday in Cambodia, where you'll kiss ass or crack"

Each year, Cambodia sends thousands of people to drug detention centers, where they are physically and sexually abused and made to do manual labor and exhausting military drills in the name of "treatment" and "rehabilitation."

Detainees are subject to harsh physical punishments. Breaking a rule could result in being whipped with electrical wire, electrocuted, or being chained to a pole in the sun. Human Rights Watch interviewed Cambodians who had been detained in these centers. One explained:

"[The staff member] would use the cable to beat people. He had three kinds of cable, made from peeling off the plastic from an electrical wire. One cable was the size of a little finger, one is the size of a thumb and one is the size of a toe. He would ask which you prefer. On each whip the skin would come off and stick on the cable."

"For a bowl of rice a day, slave for soldiers till you starve"

Former detainees told us they were given insufficient food, sometimes rotten or insect-ridden. They described symptoms such as difficulty walking, or swelling and numbness in their extremities, all consistent with beriberi - a lack of vitamin B. "I could never get full," one person told us." You were full for a short period of time, and then you start starving again."

"A holiday in Cambodia, where you'll do what you're told"

One of the most heartbreaking things we found was that UNICEF was funding one detention center where these abuses were taking place. The children were sent there from street sweeps or were arrested at the request of a family member. For between US$200-300, the police will arrest your child. There is no formal charge, no lawyer and no opportunity to appeal. As long as the family keeps paying the monthly treatment costs the child is kept.

Families are often desperate for help managing drug dependency problems, and the government promotes the centers as treatment centers. Without voluntary, community-based alternatives, where else can families go? Tragically, we also heard that the police would arrest and detain children regardless of whether or not they even used drugs - if parents thought that their kids were gay they might be at risk. The centers also hold alcoholics, gamblers, and the mentally ill.

As rebellious youth go, young Cambodians today are far from hard-core punks. When Human Rights Watch talked with these kids, they were almost invariably softly spoken and polite, often from poor families or broken homes. The majority used ya ba (methamphetamine) or ice (crystal methamphetamine) recreationally. Some may have been dependent on drugs; many did not seem to be. Some had a genuine desire to stop using drugs. Others were open about their past drug use, but told us that they had stopped using drugs weeks or even months before they were thrown into detention.

"The law don't mean shit if you've got the right friends"

Last week, facing intense criticism from our report, UNICEF went out to the detention center they fund for a visit. They told the Phnom Penh Post, that they too found the kids to be polite and engaging. They concluded that no abuses could be taking place because the kids just didn't look brutalized.

By contrast, Cambodian government officials pushed back hard on our conclusions. The Interior Ministry spokesperson, Khieu Sopheak, insisted that those in detention "need to do labor and hard work and sweating - that is one of the main ways to make drug-addicted people become normal people." Nean Sokhim, the director of one drug detention centre in Phnom Penh said that his center was voluntary - it was only if people tried to escape that they were drugged.

"It's time to taste what you most fear"

Hard work and sweating - or beatings and starving - do not treat drug dependency, and effective drug dependency treatment is not one-size- fits-all. Medical professionals, not Interior Ministry staff, should be responsible for defining approaches to drug treatment. And defining who is "normal"? That's a slippery slope to widespread detention and abuse; better to take another sip of your fruity cocktail than to think about that.

Rather than quoting again from "Holiday in Cambodia," let me switch to another song, sung by kids at the "Youth Rehabilitation Center" that UNICEF supports. Children we interviewed told us that they were forced to sing it two mornings a week:

Before I was handsome; I was a soldier
Babe the salary I had
I was a soldier; with 2500 [reil]
On the first imprisonment eating the ox's penis three times is exercise....

"Eating an ox's penis" is slang for being beaten with a policeman's baton.

Cambodia is a beautiful country and a wonderful place for a vacation. For too many young Cambodians though it still more hell than haven.