Vietnam : living on credit – part two

image articles vietnam7Here is the second part of the article “Vietnam: living on credit”; the credit system in Vietnam is widespread and involves incomes instability for both lender and applicant. 

Often the lender and the applicant belong to the same neighbourhood, which increases trust but also the ability to monitor the family in debt. In Can Tho, for example, next to Ngoc Dung’s home, twenty-four private lenders fight over the same neighbourhood. Lé Van Tôt was able to do the work necessary to save his house, and still continue to send his children to school. To do that, he borrowed 3 million dong (approximately 105 EUR) and pays back 300,000 dong (10.5 EUR) per month. For a family with a small income, this is an enormous sum, and they can barely manage to repay the interest on the loan. There is a strong possibility that Lé Van Tôt and his family will be in debt for life unless they come across a new revenue stream. To repay his debt, someday he will need to take out a new loan, or accumulate loans in a vicious circle of debt that is widespread in Viet Nam. “When we don’t pay our debts, the lenders send people to abuse us,” Lé Van Tôt confides. This statement conveys a situation that is similar to the system of usury employed by the mafia. “Hasty judgment about the informal economy in Viet Nam should be withheld,” warns Nicolas Lainez. According to him, lending is a business like any other with its advantages and drawbacks. These professional creditors can be divided into two categories. living on creditThe first category is comprised of ch? l?n (big bosses), and they are the ones in possession of money. They loan this money to the second category of lenders, retailers, the ch? nh? (little bosses), at a rate of between 3% and 5% per month. These retailers are the neighbourhood lenders or they lend to other retailers. “Money costs even more when it has gone through two or three hands,” the anthropologist points out, thereby explaining the exorbitant interest rates charged by private lenders. So the business is a double-edged sword. It makes it possible to get money quickly and at little cost. But it incurs a huge risk of debt. “It’s not rare to hear of private lenders going bankrupt or becoming indebted themselves because of too many outstanding loans,” Nicolas Lainez notes.

While many poor Vietnamese families are in debt stemming from the informal credit system, and can barely repay their loans (which are sometimes combined with bank loans), this practice is losing steam. A third of informal economy credit transactions were recorded in the 2000s while 77.5% of Vietnamese households used these loans in the 1990s. This sharp decrease is due, in particular, to macro-economic reforms implemented in the country during the Doi Moi in 1986, in conjunction with the poverty-reduction plans launched by the Vietnamese Communist Party. But since 2008, strong inflation, increase in the cost of living and the fact that certain free public services have become paid services (such as education or healthcare) have caused a shift back to the use of informal credit.

Today Ngoc Dung sells lottery tickets after school and thus takes part in the family economy. Her little six-year-old cousin, Nguyen Binh An is also looking for work. His father is a chiffonier while his grand-father is motorcycle taxi driver. But ever since the inhabitants of Can Tho have acquired the means to pay for their own motorcycles, that line of work no image articles vietnam5longer brings in very much revenue. Ngoc Dung and Binh An belong to a generation that some would willingly refer to as “those left behind by economic growth”. However, both attend school. They have support. Their parents don’t hesitate to take on debt so that in the future, thanks to their academic efforts and their work, they can finally leave their misery behind and come to the aide of their family. In the small and dirty houses of the Can Tho slum, “hope” is not an empty word.

Sidebar: Where does this informal credit system come from?

 Specialists say that informal credit is a practice that has existed everywhere from time immemorial. In southern Viet Nam however, some explain its significant development was a by-product of the presence of the prosperous Chinese community during the period of French colonialism.

 At the time, the Chinese living in Viet Nam were indispensable business partners, particularly in the sale of rice, pepper, wood and opium. The widespread diaspora and their tendency to loan money to both the rich and the poor without distinction quickly made the Chinese community a vital and choice ally for the French, who wished to turn Saigon into the “new Singapore”. Every bank and large trading house had their Chinese business agent and representative.

 But the Chinese met a formidable adversary in 1875. The Bank of Indochina was created by France to control the Indochinese economy using its exclusive right to produce Indochinese piastres. living on creditTo compete with that powerful institution in the business world, the Chinese community developed informal credit, which was already widely used in the Chinese tradition, on a massive scale. With the parallel economy in the hands of the ethnic Chinese, the Chinese community had a guaranteed place as primary intermediaries, both in commerce and in banking, thereby sapping colonial influence. This policy seemed to bear fruit. In 1936, the Chinese community held an estimated 46,000 hectares in Cochinchina. Even in 1972, out of the 32 existing banks in Saigon, 28 belonged to the Chinese.

Vietnamese families do not hesitate in contracting debts to ensure their children can attend school and build a brighter future for their families, but their position remains unstable as they are abused by an unfair arrangement which mostly benefits to the richest, leaving the poorest behind.

Text and photos: Antoine Besson. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

Vietnam: Living on credit

Living on credit

Find out about Ngoc Dung’s family struggle to face their debts; thousands of Vietnamese have to borrow money to make the ends meet but these loans often lead to more poverty…

For the past several years, Viet Nam has experienced significant economic growth and development. These profound societal changes have kept the poorest families in a state of dependence on the often unjust informal credit system.

living on creditVõ Nguyèn Ngoc Dung is heading up the main street of Can Thó, the biggest city in the Mekong Delta in Southern Viet Nam. School is over and she is slowly walking home. She moves slowly, going from one passer-by to another, from outdoor café to stand in the hopes of selling all of her lottery tickets before that evening’s drawing. At 10 years old, like many of the children in her neighbourhood, Ngoc Dung has to work. Her grandparents took her in after her parents left to find work in Saigon, and cannot do without her meagre income. Võ Thi Hai, her grandmother, sells pastries in the street and Nguyen Van Sen, her grandfather, resells ice at retail price. These are precarious lines of work that pay less and less as time goes on. However, they constitute the sole income of Ngoc Dung’s family. Without it they wouldn’t be able to eat or pay for school. But like many families in the slum where they live, it is impossible to save money for future health issues or the inevitable maintenance a house requires. Ngoc Dung’s family is completely vulnerable. The city of Can Thó, with its countless river channels, floods from July to November each year. Twice a day, at high tide, the houses in the neighbourhood are flooded. Last year, Lé Van Tôt, one of Ngoc Dung’s neighbours, was forced to borrow money to pay for the work needed to raise his house out of the water’s reach.

Living on creditLé Van Tôt, who is in poor health, cannot work. His wife, Câm Sano, sells soup to the neighbourhood labourers every morning. She has difficulty earning 30,000 dong (1 EUR) per day, which doesn’t allow her to meet all the household expenses but is enough to place the family above the poverty threshold set by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA). Because of that, Lé Van Tôt’s family cannot apply for loans geared to the most disadvantaged and that are a part of the poverty-reduction policy implemented by the central Vietnamese Government. Having no material goods to use as collateral, they cannot take out a traditional loan from the State Bank of Viet Nam or from one of the four large public banks such as the Viet Nam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (BADR), dedicated since 1992 to financing family farms, or the Viet Nam Bank for the Poor. In principle, these public institutions are intended to provide Vietnamese access to property and business development opportunities within the framework of poverty-reduction policies. But in reality, these banks “gradually come to target a clientele that, though not wealthy per se, have property in their possession that can be used as collateral,” explains Nicolas Lainez, an anthropologist writing a thesis on credit issues in Viet Nam. In particular, he points out that a number of Vietnamese households are currently excluded from the very rigid and costly financial system, one which requires a large number of administrative and material guarantees that they do not have. living on creditFor that reason, some Vietnamese, like Lé Van Tôt, turn to informal credit, a parallel financing system in which private lenders charge extremely high rates of interest. During the 2000s, use of the informal economy was still very widespread in Viet Nam. There are great advantages to these loans for families without guarantees or a steady income. The system is based on trust. The applicant is introduced to the lender by an intermediary who serves as guarantor. If the applicant disappears, the lender turns to the guarantor to honour his friend’s debt. The tradition is so widespread that there is a proverb that says “There are four stupid things in life: acting as a go-between, acting as guarantor for a debt, acting as lookout for turtledoves, playing the praise drum” (Trên d?i có bu?n cái ngu, làm mai, lãnh n?, gác cu, c?m ch?u).

In other words, the intermediary, the guarantor of a debt, the watchman who signals the hunter when the turtledove (a difficult bird to capture) appears, and the praise drum player, who keeps the rhythm for the ca trù singer (a form of sung poetry), all play the important role of mediator, though the risk they undertake goes unacknowledged.

This system of informal loans implies dependency for the poorest families and often lead to a vicious circle in which these families are trapped, sometimes for life. Stay tuned to read the second part of this article to understand how the loan system operates in Vietnam … 

Text and photos: Antoine Besson. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

M.Kamuon, Khmer mystery

Clipboard01At over 60 years of age, “Monsieur Kamuon” (pronounced “Kamoun”), a confirmed francophile and employee of Children of the Mekong in Battambang (Cambodia), has been translating on average 2,000 sponsors letters per year since 2006.  Portrait of a mystery with a Khmer soul.


 “M. Kamuon, what would you say if I tell you you’re a child at heart?  I’m sure you would laugh out loud, I can see you doing that.  And then you’d smile.  The same eternal smile as the one on the sculpted face on the main entrance archway of the Battambang temple opposite the old bridge dating back to colonial times.  You’ve lived in Battambang and area nearly all your life.  You were born in the village of Samraong Knong, five kilometres away, way out in the middle of the rice fields.  And you still live there today, with your wife, one of your four children, and two of your eight grandchildren.

On the face on the temple, it’s not only the smile that makes me think of yours, there are also the two big eyes, closed, not slanting or wide, which distinguish a Khmer from a Thai or a Vietnamese for example.  True, the face on the temple doesn’t have your gold-framed spectacles.  Yet it seems to express something of you and characteristic of the “Khmer soul”: inscrutable smile, mysteriously serene yet concealing the trauma of the dark years of the Khmer Rouge regime.  “Three years, 8 months and 20 days”, you once told me.  Times so hard you counted them off by the day.  By the second.  In 1975, you were 23 years old and you owed your survival to your fortunately dark skin – the Angkar thought that excessively light skin was a sign of westernisation and therefore punishable by death – and to your intelligence.  In order to survive, not a word about your studies, or your knowledge of French (punishable by imprisonment, torture and death).  You were forcibly taken 14 km away from Battambang to work in the rice fields, then as a carpenter. At that time, you recall, there was no market, no pagodas, no hospital, no religion.  “We were so hungry we couldn’t sleep at night. We traded our possessions – watches, jewellery – for rice, salt and sugar, with the villagers who had some.  But in secret. If we’d been caught, it was death. The Khmers Rouges tolerated nothing. One man caught in the village meant extermination for the whole village.”  To hide the fact that you could count from the Khmer Rouge soldiers, you added up using pieces of wood, your stomach contracting with fear.  You were numb with fear, unable to trust anyone else, even members of your own family, for fear of being betrayed. This perfectly illustrates the Khmer saying you told me yesterday: “When you fall asleep, you don’t fear anything anymore”.  This period of Cambodian history is part of you.

Clipboard02And yet M. Kamuon, you seem to have a touch of eternal youth! A living being who never jibs at a glass of pastis or cognac, who gets his guitar out of the cupboard as I would get a cigarette out of my pocket, whose throw of the pétanque boules challenges the experts of la Canabière, whose rendering of the songs of Aznavour (“Et pourtant”), Gilbert Bécaud (“Nathalie”) and even Stromae (!), challenges their biggest “fans”… and whose swaying to “Les Marionnettes” (Christophe) is incomparable.

You taught me to look at the nature around us with new eyes because you live with it.  It’s true: the land feeds us and keeps us alive.  It’s very simple, yet I had almost forgotten that.  “You see that tree?  Are there any of those in France?”  You taught me to distinguish between a frangipani bud and a mango or papaya bud, when I can hardly tell an oak tree from a weeping willow. You very thoughtfully brought me “flower of destiny” (pkar somning) plants from your garden for me to plant at the hostel where I lived…  And then simply mentioned that it was “no big deal” if I forgot to water them!  The fact is, looking after a garden does matter.  But I had forgotten that.

Teacher of “biology-mathematics-physics-chemistry” for ten years, teacher of French for 5 years then Inspector of Schools for Battambang province until 2003.  Inspector of the Academy (training school inspectors) in Phnomh Penh until 2005… your return to Battambang in 2006 marked a turning point in your career: you accepted a job translating sponsors letters for Children of the Mekong in partnership with Buddhism For Development (BFD).  A job you enjoy enormously: “I’m very happy as a translator. I learn a lot about your culture and your civilisation from what the sponsors say; and now I know almost all of France thanks to post cards! Pictures which became reality when I made my first and unforgettable visit to France, in December 2013.”

Very considerately you write poems in French to the sponsors you contact.  Or add a more personal note for them at the end of the translated sponsor letter, to give them extra information…

And at the end of the day, you leave the office on your moped, discreetly, without anyone really noticing.  Often with a smile, and always … singing.

Text and photos: Laurence Faure – Illustration: Lucille Vautherin.

Hanoi: a giant with feet of clay

Hanoi is no ordinary city. The Vietnamese capital is growing, changing, getting richer… As is so often the case, these changes are occurring to the detriment of a small number of people who, trapped in the outskirts or forgotten in the city centre, are struggling to find decent housing. 

_DSF1732We are in the “36 Old Streets”, a well-known area of Hanoi commonly frequently by tourists. Old houses with damp-ravaged walls bare their unprotected façades to passers-by. In one of them lives Mrs Minh, a likeable and dynamic octogenarian. Mrs Minh is the grandmother of a student sponsored by Children of the Mekong, Nguyen, who is at school today. Mrs Minh arrived in the house she lives in today in 1954. She calls it a house, but it is more like an apartment block. Forty people live there, from six families, and Mrs Minh occupies a small part of the first floor with her two daughters, her son-in-law and her grandchildren.

The only window, which looks out onto the street, provides inadequate light for a room  measuring no more than 20 square metres, chock-full with piles of improbable objects. The rent is 2 million dongs (around 70 euros) a month, and there is only one bathroom, on the second floor, which is shared by all the building’s occupants. Mrs Minh apologises for her memory, smiles, takes off her glasses and puts them back on again, as if checking they were still there. “Prior to 1954,” she says “the house belonged to a French officer. He lived with a Vietnamese woman, but we didn’t know if they were married. At the end of the war, perhaps even a little before, they fled the house and left for France. We don’t really know what became of them.” She recalls the time of the liberation: a period when hope could be written with a capital H, when anything was possible. After that, as ever, things got complicated. “Better tomorrows have become sad todays”.

Mrs Minh’s house

_DSF1295The old lady nods her head, suppresses a little shiver, remains silent for moment, and then laughs: “It’s the Palace of Draughts here”, she says. If you close your eyes, you can begin to imagine what the house was like before. Strangely enough, we imagine it on a sunny day. The room that is so dark today is bathed in light and the walls exude an air of insouciance. You then imagine the Frenchman and the Vietnamese woman in their final days here: the sighs, the fears, the hushed discussions by the light of an oil lamp, and finally the shamefaced escape one morning in July 1954. The house remains empty for a while, and then Mrs Minh and her husband arrive: a young married couple placing their timid white hands on the precious-wood handrail of the staircase. And there, quite another story begins.

Mrs Minh and her daughter know that they could be thrown out of this apartment from one day to the next, at the government’s whim. This is the way things are: what the one hand giveth, the other taketh away. They consider themselves lucky just to have the apartment and to pay such a low rent for it. It may be run down, they may have to pay for all the repairs themselves, but all the same, it’s a rich people’s house!

Fifty euros for five square metres

Phuong has the same worries about the apartment where she lives with her father, her mother and her elder brother: how much longer will they be able to stay there? 14-year-old Phuong, a motivated secondary-school student with a passion for French, intends to compensate for the limitations of her schoolteachers by learning the language herself on the internet, with the help of the program “Le français facile”.

Phuong’s father is a taxi driver. One cannot stress enough just how thankless and difficult that job can be in Asian cities. Her mother sweeps floors at a city centre restaurant. The apartment they live in was given to them by Phuong’s grandfather, who, like Mrs Minh, moved in after 1954. And like Mrs Minh, they have a small, dark room with all sorts of things piled up in it. Rats sometimes join the conversation, as does the neighbour’s ear-splitting music, which a simple partition wall, with no door, does little to shut out.

A little further on still is 50-year-old Nha, who lives with her young son in a room with a steel roof which cannot be more than 5 square metres in area, for which she pays 1.5 million dongs (over 50 euros) in rent! Five years ago, Nha lived along the Red River, in a sort of shanty town that has since been demolished. Opposite her was Phu Xa Island.

 An island refuge in the middle of the river

si place seulementNot so long ago a simple sand bank, dominating the famous Long Bien Bridge and surrounding the Red River, Phu Xa Island is now an informal island. For those who are struggling in sub-standard housing in Hanoi, this island is something of a refuge. More precisely, it is the island where some of them intended to rest a little before swimming off again towards the bank, where the first neighbourhoods of the city of Hanoi, at least on the western bank, begin in earnest. Only things didn’t go as they had hoped.

60-year-old Chu Duoc has lived here for twenty-five years and is the unofficial head of the village. He stands at the door of his house – one of the only ones built on solid ground (the others rest on drums floating on the river, so as to guard against flooding) – and observes Long Bien Bridge, known under French rule as the Pont Paul Doumer, shrouded in mist. He knows the history of the inhabitants of Phu Xa island inside out, because it is his story too. Like everyone else, he used to live in the countryside: “a few kilometres from Hanoi”, he says with a vague gesture towards the north, or the east, let’s say the north-east. One muggy, misty day, probably much like this one, he decided to try his luck, leaving behind the fields and rice plantations where he could no longer survive, and heading for the city.

A little slice of countryside

_DSF1799But with the communist administration of the time being what it was, it was impossible for him to live in Hanoi. It was forbidden, as, theoretically at least, he was not allowed to leave his village. But you can see it in his eyes: Chu Duoc is not one to stand by and accept his fate. True to form, he applied one of those old eastern precepts: “If the front door is closed, go in through the back window.” So forty or so families now live with him in Phu Xa, all of them from the countryside, all having one day hoped to move to Hanoi, all having had it made painfully clear to them that that was not possible, and all having decided, for want of a better solution in the meantime, and without any possibility of turning back, to live on the island.


How do these people live? Very simply. They grow vegetables on the island and sell them on the bridge. What do the authorities say? Almost nothing. Sometimes the police descend, usually on the grounds that clandestine card games are taking place on the island. On this point, Chu Duoc, who takes a drag on his cigarette, with a steaming-hot tea in front of him, remains enigmatic, seeming reluctant to open up too much. The island, then, operates as a kind of autarky. It is a little like a parallel universe. It’s not really Hanoi, and it’s not really the countryside. Administratively speaking, Phu Xa island doesn’t even exist. And there is little hope of the authorities one day deciding to rectify this situation.

Words and photos: Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

The Aeta people – the last hunter-gatherers in the Philippines

Hidden away in the mountains in the northern Philippines, the Aetas are a gentle people with a poorly known culture. Treated as second-class citizens, they try to somehow perpetuate their ancestral traditions. _DSF3914

In the little bamboo house of Sheryl, the television is constantly on. From the TV you can hear the sounds of a soppy soap opera that Sheryl admits she enjoys watching from time to time without really being passionate about it. It is about a young girl who marries too young and is unhappy. She conveniently develops amnesia and is adopted by a wealthy family. It is another “I love you, me neither” story against the standard background of large cars and fantastic villas with views of Manila Bay. In a way, it is also a kind of typical Filipino dream. Sheryl laughs at her addiction to this mind-numbing programme. “But everyone watches it, every evening all Filipinos are glued to their TVs,” she says in her defence.

In sum, there seems to be something to this explanation. Watching a silly soap opera means feeling that you are part of the world. It is also about feeling fully Filipino. It has everything: Rachel and her family are “IPs”, indigenous people of the Aeta ethnic group. The term “IP” suffices to encapsulate how the Aetas are perceived by the rest of the Filipino population. But the explanation does not go far enough. It is also a particular Filipino weakness to label people with colloquial names like this. “IP” is a fairly recent name, avoiding the less politically correct “negritos” which is still sometimes used and was inspired by the physical appearance of the Aetas.

A people of the coast and the mountains

A gentle people, warm and peaceful, the Aetas are considered to be the original inhabitants of the Philippines. They are said to have arrived to the islands some 4000 years ago from Taiwan, although sources and theories differ on this point. What we do know is that the Aetas were originally a coastal people and they gradually withdrew to remote mountains, driven there by not always gentle Filipinos and Spaniards. It is in the mountains we find them today, especially in the area of Balanga, about three hours northwest of Manila. AETAS_jeanmatthieugautier (8 sur 259)

There the early morning is like the world’s very first morning. The surroundings – mountains and nothing but mountains – are simply breathtaking. The morning unfolds in little insignificant things and the children, Anthony (24), Sheryl (21), Adrian (18), Sharolyn (15) and Sharmia (12), still half asleep, huddle around their parents Agapito and Sonia and the kitchen table, under a small thatched roof supported by a wooden beam on which you inevitably bump your head.

Sonia smokes a cigarette and dishes out fairly meagre portions of rice with little bits of fish. After this, everyone scatters and goes about their business. We notice that cooking is done on the floor, on a small fireplace made of three stones arranged in a triangle, and the gas stove next to it at waist height is ignored.

Mestizo Aetas and “100%” Aetas

While the younger ones walk off to look for cashew nuts or mangoes, Adrian goes to move the post of the goat, which overnight has grazed a green circle in the vegetation. Sonia, the mother, washes the kitchen dirt floor with plenty of water. Sheryl prepares to go into town. When Adrian returns, he sits at the handlebars of the family three-wheeler auto-rickshaw and immediately starts the engine with a swift downkick. Sheryl re-reads her shopping list and mounts the rickshaw.

Throughout the village it is more or less the same picture. The predominant impression is that this Aeta world, from ancient times, is a place where you subsist with very little and yet live famously. Fourteen families live here and very few of them are now what is called “100%”. That means one hundred per cent Aeta. Most are mestizos, the fruit of relationships between Tagalog Filipinos and Aetas. Sheryl’s family is a prime example because while Sonia can claim to be a “100%”, Agapito, the father, is a Filipino from the Visayas, in the south of the archipelago. Accoy, Sonia’s brother, is also one of the last “100%” in the community and he is similarly married to a Tagalog.

Accoy has never worn shoes in his life and he walks only barefoot. For hunting, for harvesting – the Aetas sometimes plant seedlings as daily hired workers in a rich local landowner’s ricefields – or for various picking jobs, Accoy has feet with an arch that would astound the most experienced chiropodist. You should see him skipping lightly over branches and rocks after telling anyone who will listen that he has spotted a colony of bees several hours of walking into the forest. “Honey hunting” is the great passion of the Aetas. Everyone joins in, men, women and children. It is a catalyst – it is one of those activities which, practiced this way, are a form of affirmation of origin, a declaration of identity.

Honey hunting 

Accoy controls his own little world in the forest, which young and old know like the back of their hand. We make our way forward by leaping from brushwood to bush, with little regard to the liana vines ensnaring our bodies. Suddenly he disappears into the smothering jungle. Everyone stops immediately. We are
surprised by the poetry of sound coming from all the trees. A minute later Accoy re-appears, his face lit AETAS_jeanmatthieugautier (51 sur 259)with a toothless smile. After another minute he stops and crouches down. We just follow his gaze to guess where the colony of bees is, perched atop a clump of bamboo. Completely silent, Accoy does not even bother to point to the objective of the hunt. Anthony, his helper, knows instinctively where to look. A moment later, Accoy, Anthony and a cluster of children following them from afar all work together to construct the “bannot“, a bundle of branches which they light before placing it just below the colony.

In a ripple of laughter, everyone makes themselves scarce and waits for a good quarter of an hour. The bees are disturbed by the smoke and dislodged from their colony. We return to simply collect the wax combs, dripping with honey that we lick off them to recover from all the excitement and because it is fabulously good. The Aetas will collect just under one litre of honey from this, which they sell at the market for 200 pesos (less than 4 euros). But in the evening they will feast on the bee larvae in the wax. And you cannot deny that the larvae complement a poor bland rice dish very well. AETAS_jeanmatthieugautier (123 sur 259)

So this is a typical afternoon for the small settlement of Matangao. For the rest of the afternoon the children go to the river, enjoy water games with the completely carefree and bubbling joy of their age. The natural question is: how long will it stay like this? The more they appear to be increasingly Aeta, just like being Breton in Brittany or Corsican in Corsica, the less guaranteed the sustainability of the Aeta “nation” seems to be. Sheryl is different from her siblings and cousins. Having recently graduated, she has just been offered a job as a teacher in primary school. She turned it down because the position was too far from her family. It is primarily to them that Sheryl wants to pass on everything she has learned during her years of study. Aeta culture? Sheryl is an Aeta first, Filipino second. And if she marries? It will be to an Aeta! Preferably a 100%.

Article by Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.

Bagan – a dreamscape in brick and gold

Deep in the heart of Burma, the Bagan complex displays its 3,000 temples, pagodas and stupas in an enchanted setting, a blend of grandiose and rustic, sacred and profane. A stroll through the site…


 Passengers alighting at dawn from the previous evening’s train from Mandalay often have to shake themselves out of a stupor. Between the aching memory of saggy seats and scars inflicted on faces by the vegetation behind the closed windows through the eight hours long journey,  the longed-for adventure has finally become a reality. At this point it is highly tempting to leave the modest station in Bagan hurriedly behind and crash in one of the guest houses in the nearest village Nyaung Oo. However, in this context, the promise of dawn is more than just the title of a novel by Romain Gary: for those who forego the pleasures of sleep for a morning walk among the temples, Bagan offers riches in abundance.

Temples by the thousand 

You need to get on a bike and away from Nyaung Oo to penetrate the magic of this immense plain, enwrapped at dawn and twilight in an enchanting ceiling of mist, pierced by the ghostly spires of a thousand stupas. The 42 square miles of Bagan are a thousand-year-old marriage of mineral and plantlife: 2,834 temples, pagodas and stupas of brick and stucco, first developed by Pierre Pichard of the École française d’Extrême-Orient – tucked away in a gentle landscape of trees and cultivated fields on the left bank of the Irrawaddy.


Built at the same time as Angkor, this assumptuous archaeological site is a direct legacy of the Kingdom of Bagan and its 42nd monarch, the Burmese King Anawratha. Having sacked the capital of the Mon royal family, Thaton, in 1057, it was to this other Mon city that the king carried his artworks and sacred text, along with the many relics of the Buddha brought back from his military campaigns. To house these treasures, he launched one of the biggest construction programmes of religious buildings in history. From the 11th to the 13th century, temples, pagodas and stupas of all kinds rose out of the ground, while the neighbouring forests were depleted, disappearing into the kilns in which the millions of bricks required to build this gigantic open-air sanctuary were produced.

The construction programme came to an abrupt end in 1287, when Bagan was taken by force by the Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of the bloodthirsty Genghis Khan. The town was spared but sank into an oblivion lasting several centuries. A slow disintegration set in, punctuated by the floods of the Irrawaddy and earthquakes. In 1975, the most violent of these tremors inspired UNESCO to restore the monuments. Today UNESCO supports the local cultural authorities but still refuses to inscribe the monument on the World Heritage List, a request for which was first submitted in 1996, citing the government’s negligence of the site. However, the country passed the million-tourist mark in 2012 and the new Burmese political climate might relieve the situation.   DSCF6026

Sublime monotony 

Under an already scorching sun, the walk soon takes on the feel of an initiatory journey. Bagan offers a truly sumptuous display of the Buddhist art of sublime monotony. The stupas and temples stretching from one end of the site to the other seem genuinely to belong to one single family. Simple commemorative monuments with no entrances, the former house relics of the Buddha. The depths of the latter conceal statues of Buddha, glittering with the fine leaves of gold appended by the faithful, while pilgrims close their eyes and visitors look on wide-eyed amazement.

Near the historic village of Old Bagan rises the temple of Ananda. With its 60 m circumference and its five terraces rising to 56 m, it is one of the largest and oldest on the site. Built in the early 12th century by king Kyanzittha, it was fully restored after the 1975 earthquake. On the inside, four sanctuary niches, each featuring a nine-metre high statue, correspond to the four temple entrances. Gold-plated teak statues DSCF5976 portray the Buddha standing – the position in which he attained nirvana. Further on, an army of countless smaller Buddhas tucked in the walls of the two corridors accompany a series of terracotta bas-reliefs and a  sumptuous multi-coloured openwork door. Elsewhere, the depths of the temple of Patothamya, probably built in the 10th century, of Dhammayangyi, haunted by bats or of Gubyaukgyi, rich in Hindu influences, conceal further treasures. Fumbling your way along, a figure suddenly emerges from the darkness. It is only the guard, however, coming to illuminate the blackened walls with the fading light of his torch. From the greenish aura cast by the torch emerge delicate paintings representing scenes from the life of the Buddha – the jatakas – but also swarms of slender dancers or festive and dance scenes which seem to have arisen out of a dream.

The secret of Bagan 

Visits to Bagan are random and haphazard by their very nature. At every twist in the path, the redness of a brick wall glimpse behind a thicket or through the foliage of a sugar palm  tree simply demands a pause. You get off your bike, look around, and take off again. The scenery may be constantly changing but the principle remains the same.

As the evening descends over the temples, the visitors gather in a tight huddle around the Shwesandaw pagoda rising up in the centre of the site. Enticed by the spectacle described by their travel guides in carefully identical terms, they all prepare, cameras and tablets ready, to celebrate the universal rite that consists of watching the sun set from a high vantage point. While the ritual inevitably calls to mind  the drawbacks of mass tourism, it is difficult to blame anyone. It is a glorious moment, and the breathtaking height of Shwesandaw delivers fully on its promise of a feast for the eyes.

Having climbed the dizzying steps leading to the summit, the eye is suddenly drawn to an indescribable scene. On the horizon, a descending sun pours its colours into a sea of mist, wrapped around stone statues. Then the scene fades and another reality appears. Here and there, an intimate and little-known life carries on down on the plain. Dressed in a traditional longyis, a peasant makes his way across his freshly ploughed field at the feet of a venerable temple. Further afield, an ox-drawn cart jolts along a sandy path. These en grand ou assez grand poems of rural Burmese life, undisturbed by the passing of the centuries, are reminiscent of Virgil and Hubert Robert. And aware that tourism could bring the end of such idylls, you savour their magic, even if unable to stave off a vague anxiety. But as this world sinks into night, you leave with a light heart, delighted to have come so close to the secret world of Bagan.

Article by Geoffroy Caillet. Originally published in the Enfants du Mekong Magazine.

Haiyan: an initial assessment of your donations

On 8 November 2013, one of the most violent typhoons in history reached the Philippines, and in particular the Visayas region. Winds of over 300 km/h and waves of three hundred metres swept away thousands of fragile homes in a few hours. Today, over 14 million inhabitants are affected by this natural disaster, 4 million of which are children (40% of the population of the centre of the Visayas region). 4.1 million people have been displaced, 1 million homes and 630 schools have been destroyed.

hay1Children of the Mekong were involved long before the disaster in the Philippines. Thanks to our local links and our knowledge of the terrain, we are working on reconstruction as well as project supervision, relying on 55 local programme managers (voluntary), 10 social workers (paid), 17 French volunteers in the Philippines (Volunteers of Solidarité Internationale V.S.I.), 1 general coordinator in Cebu and two volunteers specially allocated to the reconstruction projects.

Each of these projects is managed by a local (Filipino) coordinator who ensures the smooth progress of the project and manages the logistical side. S/he monitors the families individually and sends regular reports to EdM. The Filipino programme manager is guarantor of the local rebuilding project. S/he works directly with the families. S/he receives the funds, ensures they are used correctly and guides the EdM volunteers in the selection of families and in the best course to follow for the projects. The overseas project coordinator carries out transversal monitoring via visits and regular follow-up. S/he accompanies and supports the local teams and canvasses and maintains links between the head office and the donors.

In order for the reconstruction to go as well as possible and in a spirit of mutual aid and solidarity, we bring together the families that are aid recipients and we present the project, the origin of the funds and the association to these families. We then ask them to train groups of 5 families, to facilitate construction and monitoring and we get them to sign a simple contract in which they are committed to respect the  “Bayanihan Spirit” – the spirit of solidarity – and to use the materials given rapidly and solely for the construction of their homes.hay2

At the present time, we have already succeeded in helping 1189 families in 8 different zones by providing them with materials to rebuild their homes. We are also launching an initial agricultural project to give back to the families of farmers rapid means of subsistence. We are also in the process of canvassing in new zones so as to be able to reach more aid recipients, even in the most isolated and inaccessible places. 44% of our programmes have been affected.  No deaths have been reported as regards our supported children and our local teams.

Recovery of economic activity

In addition to our home rebuilding projects, we have chosen to support families who have lost their work tools. We are presently launching an initial pilot project in Ormoc for a number of families who made a living off coconut palm plantations. As the trees have been destroyed, it will take years before they can harvest coconuts and live off them once more. In order to enable these families to be able to feed themselves properly and also to rapidly obtain an income, in partnership with the municipality we have put in place an agricultural project: we supply the seeds and the equipment to families after having trained them so that they can start subsistence farming, i.e. mainly intended for on-farm consumption and subsistence economy.

The project is organised into six simple steps:

1. Identifying 100 families who are needy and who are motivated by the project.

2. Negotiating plots of land not used by the 6 large landowners who own nearly all of the land in this area of intervention.

3. Training families in this type of crop then getting them to sign a contract in which they agree to pay 10% of their harvest to the most needy – elderly people, sick people, single mothers… who cannot grow crops, in order to continue the momentum of solidarity.

4. Creating groups of 8 to 10 people and assigning a plot of land to them.

5. Supplying small tools and seeds.

6. Carrying out regular follow-up.

This project is launched in partnership with the municipality and our local coordinators. It will enable families to rapidly have access to healthy food and a balanced diet that they have produced themselves and which could also bring them a modest income if they wish to sell a portion of their vegetables.


Thanks to our support, we have already managed to help 1189 families to find a decent home in 8 different zones

We are continuing our canvassing phase by pooling our contacts and the different local networks to be able to extend our help and to continue to help families that are victims of the typhoon, either by rebuilding their homes, or by supporting recovery of local domestic activity. We are also needed for the rebuilding of schools in our different areas of intervention.. We have already succeeded in launching our first economic activity recovery project for 100 families in Ormoc.

In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:”As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it”. In the Philippines, although the future remains unpredictable, hope is now possible once more for all of these families.

Text: Matthieu Delaunay. Photo: Antoine Besson. This article was previously published on Enfants du Mekong’s blog on 13/02/2014. 

Coconut farmers at risk – Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines last November 8. It caused more than 6,000 deaths, affected an additional 14 million people and damaged 600,000 hectares of farmland. Since then, farmers have struggled to recover.

coco2At the end of January, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) concisely stated, “In the Philippines, small-scale producers need help to recover livelihoods while replanted trees mature”. Thirty-three million coconut trees were damaged or destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in Eastern Visayas, the second largest coconut-producing region of the country. More than a million farmers were impacted. Although they are in the process of replanting the trees, a major concern is that it will take between six and eight years for the tress to reach maturity and for production to return to pre-typhoon levels.

With 26.6% of global production, the Philippine archipelago is the second largest coconut producer in the world. The devastation caused by the typhoon led to fallout throughout the sector, affecting not only the farm owners, workers and suppliers but also those involved in transport and logistics. To get by, most farmers will have to borrow at interest rates as high as 120%.



Many of the families of Children of the Mekong’s sponsored children made their living through day labour on local plantations. Overnight, these households were left with no means of subsistence. The organisation mobilised to implement projects that would allow these families to quickly find a way to provide for themselves.

Although these projects are not currently tied directly to coconut-tree production, Livelihood ACAY–which is involved in a community near Tacloban–envisions the possibility of replanting the trees that were the main source of income for the village. Emmanuel Roy, a “Bamboo” volunteer in the Philippines, received a report of a student from Leyte whose family was severely affected by the typhoon. With help from the Department of Agriculture, which distributed the seeds, the family has recently replanted destroyed rice fields. They are also growing vegetables and picking fruit, which they sell in the market to support themselves.

Children of the Mekong hopes that these reconstruction and diversification efforts will provide sustainable activities for these families, who were so dependent on what had been the principal source of revenue for the archipelago.

Texte: Matthieu Delaunay        Photo: ©Antoine Besson

Outlook for 2014

As a new year dawns, the editors at Children of the Mekong would like to give readers a better idea of the situation in the seven countries where our association is active. This is a quick overview of the countries that are so important for us, their prospects and outlook.

1 – Thailand: Is a coup d’état imminent?

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Bangkok. The legislation granting amnesty to Thaksin Shinawatra, passed at the end of 2013, crystallized the Thai people’s exasperation. A growing share of public opinion no longer wants the country to be led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, who headed the government from 2001 to 2006. He fled the country in 2006 following a military coup and was convicted in absentia to two years’ prison for embezzlement. While anti-Shinawatra mobilization attempts in 2011 and 2012 were unsuccessful, the recent legislation opened a Pandora’s box. The dice have now been cast for a government already struggling to gain credibility, although it can still rely on the “Reds” for support. When he was Prime Minister, Thaksin had implemented a policy that granted very substantial material benefits (social security, loan assistance fund) for farmers. Today, this semi-urbanized class no longer has anything in common with predecessors of 40 years ago and aspires to a life similar to that of the urban classes.

The opposition “Yellows” essentially consist of what is termed the “traditional elite”: public servants, bureaucrats, many from economic circles. They can also rely on the ultimate support of the army which, for the moment, is standing by the existing government but could switch sides at any moment. Paradoxically, it is also filled with people from fairly modest circumstances who now feel genuine revulsion verging on hatred for the Shinawatra family. Beyond these protests, the rift now emerging within the Thai people itself might very well reflect a deeper social malaise.

2 – Cambodia: Challenges aplenty

On Friday 3 January, thousands of workers blocked access to their plant in Phnom Penh. Some, armed with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, opposed public security forces. After firing the usual warning shots, the police finally took aim, killing four and wounding 27. This drama occurred as protests by textile workers backed opposition demands of the past several months that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call new elections, amidst claims that the July vote was tainted by massive fraud. In November 2013, these protests had already resulted in the fatal shooting of one woman. These massive public protests were denouncing horrendous working conditions (many workers fainting, inadequate food, and overwork) in the textile industry. This crucial sector of Cambodia’s economy now employs 650,000 workers, including 400,000 for companies under contract to major international brands. Core demands include raising the minimum wage to US$160 a month in 2014, from the current US$80. In mid-January, despite barricades and massive protests, Cheam Yeap, member of the National Assembly for the prime minister’s party, downplayed the scope of the rebellion in Cambodia. Clashes between workers and opponents are expected to continue for a long time to come…

2014-1DR: Jean-Matthieu Gautier

3 – Myanmar (Burma): A genuine opening?

Myanmar appears to have taken a new step on the road to reform and economic openness, specifically by launching a broad program of measures designed to attract foreign capital. On 31 December 2013, Rangoon announced that there were “no longer any political prisoners.” Although doubts persist about the accuracy of these claims, the amnesty granted is directly related to the reforms started after President Thein Sein dissolved the junta in March 2011. Only one major question remains: what is the real nature of the change begun? Is this genuine democratization or just a purely economic strategy? While this is a signal sent to Burmese society, it is targeted at least as much at economic players who have been eying this country, which has extraordinary potential. A rapid economic catch-up phase already appears to be underway. A fivefold increase in Direct Foreign Investment was also posted in 2013, from US$300 million in 2012 to US$1.5 billion in 2013; the beginnings of economic development promise to be impressive.

4 – Philippines: In the wake of Haiyan, schools now reopening

In early January, three months after the ravages of typhoon Haiyan, schools in the central Philippines have finally reopened. On Leyte Island, 80 per cent of schools were destroyed. Although many students are absent, dead or evacuated, the return to school will enable hundreds of thousands of children to return to a more normal life and will help struggling families get back to work so they can survive. However, much work remains and many reconstruction programs still have to be implemented. For the moment, classes are often held in temporary structures: prefabricated units, under tarpaulins, etc. In the coastal village of San Roque, near Tacloban on Leyte Island, children returned to class under a large white tent a few metres from the shore. “Only 50 per cent of our thousand students have returned to school,” laments Principal Evelyn Encina.

2014-2DR: Geoffroy Caillet

5 – Laos: Massive, silent deforestation

Laos is slowly gaining the unenviable reputation of the country undergoing the greatest deforestation. This is a drama unfolding as the primary forests in this region world are increasingly threatened. Leading the way is the southern province of Attapeu. Between the 1940s and the early years of this century, international experts estimate that the country’s forest coverage has declined from 70 to 41 percent. Some specialists even claim that the areas still with the densest forests now cover barely 3 per cent of total land area. Despite the ban on raw timber exports since 2004 and imposition of a harvest quota system in clearly delineated areas, there is every indication that these quotas are ignored and that contractors violate regulations at will. Illegal deforestation appears to be continuing unabated. There are many causes, but one of the leading problems is collusion between companies controlled by the military on both sides of the border between Laos and Vietnam. Deforestation facilitates standardization of agriculture and vast rubber tree plantations. This government choice has dramatic consequences, leading to eviction of many workers from the land, who are now forced to survive by providing plantation owners with a ready source of cheap labour.

6 – Yunnan: All-consuming flames

On Saturday 11 January, the thousand-year-old Tibetan village of Dukezong in China’s Yunnan province was ravaged by a massive fire that damaged more than 240 homes. This village of some 700 homes covering 16 square kilometres was founded more than 1,300 years ago. Dukezong was considered one of the Tibetan communities with the best preserved architectural heritage and traditional houses. The fire spread quickly in the middle of the night, through Dukezong’s streets lined primarily with traditional Tibetan wood buildings. More than 1,000 firefighters and volunteers were called out, but the fire was not brought under control until the next morning, nine hours later. More than 2,600 residents were evacuated. The flames also destroyed Tibetan antiques and works of art. The Zhongguo Xinwen wang [China News] news site reported that economic losses could reach more than 100 million yuan (€12 million ). While investigations into the cause of the fire continue, investigators have ruled out arson.

7 – Vietnam: The focus is on health.

With a population of almost 90 million, Vietnam now has more than 62.3 million recipients of health insurance or social insurance. This revealing number shows the clear progress made in the country’s healthcare system. Today, 10.6 million Vietnamese residents are required to have social and medical insurance, and 51.5 million are registered for health insurance.

These numbers reflect significant economic growth and progress in health. Vietnamese now use precautions and willingly invest in better health care. However, all these encouraging statistics must not hide the fact that while this insurance provides contributors with access to a broader range of health care, it generally does not cover serious illnesses. In hygiene proper, the process is underway but still provides no viable alternative to rampant corruption in all healthcare centres. If a person is hospitalized, a family member must sleep next to the patient, resulting in the loss of two incomes. This is a hard challenge in an institution that charges for the bed, drugs and many procedures. In Vietnam, medical care for the poor remains a recurring and still unresolved problem.


DR: Antoine Besson

Matthieu Delaunay, journalist at the “Enfants du Mekong” magazine.

Samrong, by Marcus Fedder

Last November I was on business in Cambodia.  It’s a country I had visited on numerous occasions as I was on the board of a Cambodian microfinance bank for a couple of years.  So I knew life away from the urban or tourist centres, the incredibly tough life farming rice and raising children on two dollars a day, life in urban slums where one’s house is totally submerged by the rising rivers during the rainy season.  Thus, when Jean Marc created Children of the Mekong, it was an easy choice to support that charity as I could connect to it.  So this November I visited Samrong to get a direct impression of the kids and the centre Children of the Mekong would be supporting with the sale of paintings on January 22nd.  

The garden in the centre Samrong is about a two hour drive from Siem Reap and the centre lies idyllically on the outskirts of the small town.  The centre itself is charming with a large football pitch, colourful buildings, wide open-air classrooms, happy cats, a dancing dog, chicken, flowers – and yet it is simple, and the classrooms and accommodation are rather spartan.  The most noticeable feature is however that the whole place is full of enthusiasm and loads of positive energy.   

Bruno, a civil aviation engineer and his wife Lucille, an art-restoration specialist and wonderful artist are the volunteers running Samrong this year with amazing dedication.  It’s a 24 hour job, taking care of the kids, organising the centre, the surrounding schools, participating in the activities which range from football to harvesting rice.  Both have a great rapport with the kids and neither seems to be missing life in France too much.  

Lucille showing Marcus the sponsored children's picturesThe names of the kids are on a big white-board in the office.  Most kids have a ‘guardian’ who is paying the bills.  Don’t forget, only twenty four pounds a month is the difference between construction-site slavery and higher education.   All of them asked how Jean Marc had done in his muay thai boxing fight as if they feared they’d be kicked out of school if he lost.  

So how does the centre work?   Most kids come from surrounding villages where people live as farmers on less than two dollars a day.  Their parents are too poor to allow their kids to be educated.  Girls are usually married off at a young age and end up farming or working in factories and boys work on the fields or go across the border to Thailand where much more money awaits those 15 to 16 year olds who are prepared to slave away long days on construction sites.  

This is where Children of the Mekong come in and break the cycle by enabling bright kids to get a proper education.   So these youngsters come to live in Samrong in one big and evidently cheerful community and go to a local high school.  The problem is, however, that the quality of public schooling is so poor that even the brightest children would not have a chance to get decent enough A-level results to go on to university.  So Samrong organises intensive extra classes from early morning to night and thus these bright kids get a chance to move on.

At the centre, boys and girls live in separate dormitories which consist of large rooms with beds on the sides.   No luxuries like single rooms.  And the day starts well before sunrise.  Already before 6 am the first classes start at the centre, giving the students a headstart before trodding off to the local school for ‘official’ education.   After school it’s games, or rice harvesting and more classes till dinner.   We joined the girl’s dorm for Sunday dinner and sat on the wooden floor enjoying a delicious meal the girls had cooked.   Khmer cuisine is, in contrast to Thai food, not well known abroad but wonderfully spicy and varied and in my view more delicious than Thai food.  It certainly was that evening.  

The mistery of a chemistry formulaAs school starts early and as there are no Youtube or TV distractions, the place should have been dead by 9pm but walking past the classrooms showed how determined the children are.   A large number of them were still studying.  So I looked at the blackboard where some 15 year old boys were arguing over some chemistry formula.  To be honest, I did not understand the formulas so I asked Bruno to explain, who, with a thorough French scientific education would be better able to understand things.  Alas, the level of chemistry these kids were discussing was beyond all our reach.  

What was great to hear was the plans for the future each of the kids already have.   Whereas in previous years most wanted to become teachers or doctors, as these seemed to be the only academic role models they knew, now the picture was more differentiated:   a number of girls wanted to become lawyers, but some were thinking about journalism and even chemical engineering.  Each of them seemed fully aware of a potentially great future ahead of them.  Each of them was incredibly enthusiastic and determined to see it happen.  Without Samrong, it would not happen.  Instead, these future lawyers, doctors and engineers would end up marrying as 16 year olds or in factories, on the fields or building sites. 

So, back in London I felt inspired and motivated again to paint to raise money.  And each painting sold will change some kid’s life for the better.    

Marcus Fedder will hold his Art Auction at Reed Smith, on Wednesday 22 January 2014. All the proceeds will go to our Education Centre in Samrong. Click here for more information.

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