This week in the ‘On the Forefront’ series we meet the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation in Cambodia, a group committed to providing Cambodians with opportunities and resources to care for themselves in the wake of the Cambodian Genocide which still has effects 40 years later.
In June 2013, the Asian Human Rights Commission declared that torture in Cambodia is “systematic” with 141 documented cases of torture in police custody since 2010. With a population of nearly 15 million, perhaps the 141 figure seems low. However this figure is only officially documented cases – unreported instances of torture could be much higher.
And regardless of the numbers, Cambodia is a country still reeling from the terrible effects of the Khmer Rouge regime which, almost exactly 40 years ago, killed at least two-million people through the Cambodian Genocide.
During the four-year rule of Pol Pot (1975-79) torture, starvation, and political executions were commonplace amidst a rule now hailed by prosecutors in the subsequent war crimes trials as “one of the most heinous regimes history has ever known.”
It is in this historical context of torture that the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation Cambodia (TPO Cambodia) exists, to provide support to those who are unable to care for themselves due to their circumstances.
Established in 1995 as a branch of the Netherlands based NGO “TPO International”, TPO Cambodia was registered as an independent local NGO in 2000 with a vision to allow Cambodian citizens to live with good mental health and a satisfactory quality of life. Their remit is wide and among other medical and psychosocial programmes to benefit anyone in Cambodia, rehabilitating torture survivors is one of their key focus areas.
Dealing with the effects of the Khmer Rouge is a still a priority – it is estimated around 14% of Khmer Rouge survivors, and their descendants, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder today, with even higher rates reported among those testifying in the trials against the regime.
TPO Cambodia estimates that state torture is far more prevalent than official statistics depict, with figures from 20-35% of detainees reported to have been tortured in state prisons. Electric shocks and physical beatings remain the most popular form of torture, and poverty among the victims often leaves them without a legal or rehabilitative route to overcome their torture.
And this is where TPO Cambodia excels. By providing medical health checks and mental health assessments as standard, the experts at TPO Cambodia can quickly and effectively assess the damage of torture. From there the IRCT member offers basic legal counselling, financial aid, and testimonial therapy to allow survivors of torture to restore a sense of control over their lives and to restore their reputations among their communities.
With the help of several NGOs and government ministries, TPO Cambodia tirelessly fights for the rights of torture survivors through an extensive list of programmes and initiatives. And with a fully functional website featuring vast libraries of information discussing current projects and services, and collating all their past research and resources, TPO Cambodia is certainly one of the leading anti-torture organisations in south-east Asia.
Even though the horrifying reflections on the past still take prominence in the country, and even though torture is still not a defined criminal offence in Cambodia, the work of TPO Cambodia offers hope and support to illuminate a positive future.