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Friday, August 10, 2012

Scott Neeson left Hollywood to save children rooting in Cambodia's garbage dumps

He sold his mansion, Porsche, and yacht and set off for Cambodia to provide food, shelter, and education to destitute children.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Scott Neeson's final epiphany came one day in June 2004. The high-powered Hollywood executive stood, ankle deep in trash, at the sprawling landfill of Stung Meanchey, a poor shantytown in Cambodia's capital.

In a haze of toxic fumes and burning waste, swarms of Phnom Penh's most destitute were rooting through refuse, jostling for scraps of recyclables in newly dumped loads of rubbish. They earned 4,000 riel ($1) a day – if they were lucky.

Many of the garbage sorters were young children. Covered in filthy rags, they were scruffy, sickly, and sad.

Clasped to Mr. Neeson's ear was his cellphone. Calling the movie mogul from a US airport, a Hollywood superstar's agent was complaining bitterly about inadequate in-flight entertainment on a private jet that Sony Pictures Entertainment, where Neeson was head of overseas theatrical releases, had provided for his client.

Neeson overheard the actor griping in the background. " 'My life wasn't meant to be this difficult.' Those were his exact words," Neeson says. "I was standing there in that humid, stinking garbage dump with children sick with typhoid, and this guy was refusing to get on a Gulfstream IV because he couldn't find a specific item onboard," he recalls. "If I ever wanted validation I was doing the right thing, this was it."

. And here is the rest of it.
Doing the right thing meant turning his back on a successful career in the movie business, with his $1 million salary. Instead, he would dedicate himself full time to a new mission: to save hundreds of the poorest children in one of the world's poorest countries.

Much to everyone's surprise, within months the Australian native, who as president of 20th Century Fox International had overseen the global success of block-busters like "Titanic," "Braveheart," and "Die Another Day," quit Hollywood. He sold his mansion in Los Angeles and held a garage sale for "all the useless stuff I owned." He sold off his Porsche and yacht, too.

His sole focus would now be his charity, the Cambodian Children's Fund, which he had set up the previous year after coming face to face, while on vacation in Cambodia, with children living at the garbage dump.

"The perks in Hollywood were good – limos, private jets, gorgeous girlfriends, going to the Academy Awards," says Neeson, an affable man with careworn features and a toothy smile. "But it's not about what lifestyle I'd enjoy more when I can make life better for hundreds of children."

He sits at his desk barefoot, Cambodian-style, in white canvas pants and a T-shirt. At times he even sounds like a Buddhist monk. "You've got to take the ego out of it," he says. "One person's self-indulgence versus the needs of hundreds of children, that's the moral equation."

On the walls of his office, next to movie posters signed by Hollywood stars, are before-and-after pictures of Cambodian children. Each pair tells a Cinderella story: A little ragamuffin, standing or squatting in rubbish, transforms in a later shot into a beaming, healthy child in a crisp school uniform.

Neeson has more than 1,300 sets of such pictures; that's how many children his charity looks after. Every one of the children, the Australian humanitarian stresses, he knows by sight, and most of them by name. "You go through a certain journey with them," he says.

Houy and Heang were among the first who started that journey with him in 2004. Abandoned by their parents, the two sisters, now 17 and 18, lived at the dump in a makeshift tent.

"We felt sick and had no shoes. Our feet hurt," Houy recalls in the fluent English she's learned. "We'd never seen a foreigner," Heang adds. "He asked us, 'Do you want to study?' "

Today the sisters are about to graduate from high school. They want to go on to college.
Neeson maintains four residential homes around town for more than 500 other deprived children and is building another. He operates after-school programs and vocational training centers. He's built day cares and nurseries.

His charity provides some 500 children with three meals a day and runs a bakery where disadvantaged youths learn marketable skills while making nutrient-rich pastry for the poorest kids. It pays for well over 1,000 children's schooling and organizes sightseeing trips and sports days for them.

"I drive the staff crazy," says Neeson, who employs more than 300 locals, many of them former scavengers. "If I come up with a plan, I want to see it implemented within 48 hours. If I see a need, I want to do something about it. You don't want to see suffering prolonged."
He sees plenty of both need and suffering.

After decades of genocide and civil war, millions of Cambodians live in abject poverty. Many children are chronically malnourished, and many never even finish primary school.

On a late afternoon, as garbage pickers begin to return to their squalid dwellings of plastic sheets, tarpaulins, and plywood, Neeson sets out on his daily "Pied Piper routine."

Navigating a muddy path, pocked with fetid puddles and strewn with trash, which winds among clusters of derelict shacks and mounds of garbage, he picks his way around a squatters' community. Everywhere he goes, children dash up to him with cries of "Papa! Papa!" They leap into his arms, pull at his shirt, cling to his arms, wrap themselves around his legs.

"Hey, champ!" he greets a boy who clambers up on him. "He needs a dentist so badly," he notes, referring to the boy's rotten teeth. His charity offers free health care and dental services to the children and their parents.

In 2007 Neeson won the Harvard School of Public Health's Q Prize, an award created by music legend Quincy Jones. In June he was named "a hero of philanthropy" by Forbes magazine. ("Well, I finally made it into Forbes," he quips. "But no 'World's Richest' list for me.")

When Neeson spots certain kids, he hands them their portraits from a sheaf of newly printed photographs he carries around.

"I want them to have mementoes of themselves when they grow up and leave all this behind," he explains. They give him their latest drawings in return.

He stops at a windowless cinder-block shanty inhabited by a mother and her three teenage daughters. The bare walls are adorned with Neeson's portraits of the girls in school beside their framed Best Student awards.

"I'm so proud of my children," says Um Somalin, a garment factory worker who earns $2 a day. "Mr. Scott has done wonders for them."

Neeson rescued one girl from being trafficked, another from domestic servitude, and the mother from a rubber plantation, after he had come across the youngest girl living alone at the dump. "We always bring the family back together," he says. "We help everyone so no one slips through the cracks."
The need is great: Life here can be unforgiving. "This girl has an abusive father. This one here fell into a fire when she was 6. That guy got shot. That one there lost an arm in an accident," Neeson says, reeling off details.

Then, flashlight in hand, he doubles back down another path – and steps into what seems like a different world. Behind a high-security fence, children sit in neat rows in brightly painted classrooms, learning English and math in evening classes. Others play on computers in an air-conditioned room.

Until recently, the site where Neeson's new school now stands was a garbage dump.
"When I started working for him, I was surprised how much he does for the children," says Chek Sarath, one of his helpers. "He places their well-being above his own."

Neeson stops by young children who have their eyes glued to a Disney cartoon playing from a DVD.
"I miss a lot about Hollywood," Neeson muses. "I miss Sundays playing paddle tennis on the beach with friends and taking the boat out to the islands.

"Sundays here, I'm down at the garbage dump. But I'm really happy."
• Learn more about Scott Neeson's work at www.cambodianchildrensfund.org.

Donate / get involved

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

To support programs in Cambodia and elsewhere, UniversalGiving recommends:
Asia America Initiative builds peace, social justice, and economic development in impoverished, conflict-plagued communities. Project: Support a healing center for child victims of war.

Globe Aware promotes cultural awareness and sustainability. It seeks projects that will help people live happy, healthy, and independent lives. Project: Teach English in Cambodia.

Plan International USA works side by side with communities in 50 developing countries to end the cycle of poverty for children. Project: Give school supplies to children in need.

• Sign up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.
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Cambodian prince quits polictic for the second time

PHNOM PENH, Aug 10, 2012 (AFP) - Cambodian Prince Norodom Ranariddh on Friday announced that he was quitting politics for a second time after he was perceived as an obstacle to a merger between royalist parties.Norodom-Ranariddh

The son of beloved former king Norodom Sihanouk agreed in May to combine his eponymous Norodom Ranariddh Party with Funcinpec in a bid to reinvigorate the royalist movement ahead of next year's general elections.

"I would like to announce, from now on, that I stop doing politics and will not take responsibility for any work and decisions made by the Norodom Ranariddh Party any more," Ranariddh said in a statement.

The prince did not provide the motive behind his decision to leave politics but it comes after senior officials from both parties accused him of standing in the way of a smooth merger, in an apparent clash of personalities.

Ranariddh was ejected from Funcinpec in 2006 for alleged fraud involving the illegal sale of the party's headquarters. He formed his own party shortly afterwards.

The prince was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in jail over the charges the following year and quit politics in late 2008 after receiving a royal pardon.

He returned to the political scene in late 2010, vowing to re-unite the royalists.

The prince's political career began with great promise when, in 1993 as head of Funcinpec, he won Cambodia's UN-sponsored election.

But he was forced to accept a co-prime mini

ster -- the current premier Hun Sen -- who then ousted him in a bloody coup in 1997.
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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Has a Secret Plan

By James Hookway

Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen says he has a “secret strategy” to prevent his Southeast Asian nation from being dominated by its much larger neighbors: casinos.

In a five-hour, 20 minute address to Cambodia’s parliament Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen explained that his plans to turn this country of 15 million people into a global gaming hub is in fact part of a longer-term strategy to prevent neighbors such as Vietnam and Thailand from encroaching on Cambodian turf.

Border disputes are a recurring problem in the region, with Thai and Cambodian troops occasionally locking horns in Cambodia’s east. A contentious border demarcation process with Vietnam is still under way, and Mr. Hun Sen’s opponents have accused him of giving away territory to regional rivals, especially Vietnam, in the past. But on Thursday he took them to task.

“I don’t like casinos, but the biggest goal for giving permission to build casinos is to protect the border,” Mr. Hun Sen, 61 years old, told lawmakers in a marathon address, which was estimated by aides to be his longest yet. The predominantly Buddhist country now has more than 25 casinos, with more gaming tables on the way. “One can remove border markers, but one can’t remove five-storey hotels. Don’t be stupid.”
Worse, Mr. Hun Sen said, his critics had forced him to reveal his clandestine security plan. “This should be a secret strategy to protect the nation,” Asia’s longest-serving leader barked in his televised speech, which was mandatory viewing for civil servants, who watched their leader speak without breaks or taking questions.

It’s unclear how firmly Mr. Hun Sen’s tongue was planted in his cheek. His long and often rambling speeches frequently invite comparison with other long-winded leaders, such as Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and he often upbraids erring ministers on live television.

Earlier this year, he also lashed out at foreign correspondents for daring to suggest that Cambodia might use its role as host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year to prevent the trade and security-bloc from taking a common stand against one of Cambodia’s main allies, China.

“I think he was being facetious” when unveiling his secret casino plan, said Ben Lee, an analyst with Macau-based consultancy iGamix.

It wasn’t immediately possible to reach a Cambodian government spokesman, and Vietnamese government officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Cheam Yeap, a member of Mr. Hun Sen’s party in the legislature, said the casino plan “is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own strategy to protect the border. The prime minister is serious with his speech.”


There has been an extraordinary surge in new casinos opening their doors for business in Cambodia in recent years. Its government is attempting to attract a slice of the gaming money that has made Asia a new global center for the industry, and Cambodia’s borders are lined with casinos catering to Thai and Vietnamese gamblers who are prohibited from gambling in their own countries.

Opponents regularly criticize Mr. Hun Sen for promoting casinos for visitors. Many Cambodians, who are legally barred from gambling, see the joints as morally degrading.

Yet the industry has also created thousands of jobs in a country that is still striving to overcome of the chaos of the 1970s, when the former Maoist Khmer Rouge regime killed or contributed to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. The country’s casinos range from hard-scrabble affairs in border outposts to palatial buildings in Phnom Penh, such as the riverside NagaWorld resort, which is adding 220 rooms to its existing 500.

The government says gaming generated around $20 million in tax revenues last year, up 25% from the year before, and which is re-invested in health care and education.

Authorities are now eyeing more casino developments in other tourist areas, including the towns of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville as Cambodia hopes to follow in the path of other gaming centers such as Macau, which last year pulled in $33.5 billion in gaming revenue, more than the five times the amount raked in in Las Vegas.

It is unclear how successful Cambodia will be in capturing a larger slice of this market, though squeamishness over the suitability of gaming in a predominantly Buddhist society doesn’t appear to be getting in the way of the country’s longer-term commercial and, possibly, national security goals.
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