Ratanak means precious stone or gem in the Khmer language. In this case Ratanak was the name of a little girl who, in late 1989, lay in a hospital in north west Cambodia. As her mother looked on, the doctors tried to save her life. There was no medication or medical equipment available to save her. This event inspired Brian McConaghy, a decorated member of the RCMP, to create the Ratanak Foundation, : a relief and development organization dedicated to bringing spiritual hope to the Khmer people by assisting Cambodia rebuild the social and medical services which would have saved the life of the little girl named Ratanak.
In June of 2005, Brad Jersak of Clarion interviewed Brian McConaghy of the Ratanak Foundation.
Clarion: Tell us who you are and where you’re from.
Brian: I’m Brian McConaghy. I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. My dad was a Presbyterian pastor and we moved to Canada because he was called by the church to come here. We didn’t really have a particular desire to come here. As I look back on it, I view a lot of the things that I didn’t plan on in my own personal history as God’s preparation for me to go to Cambodia.
The first thing is that I grew up with a fairly high degree of violence. I was very familiar with day to day violence. As an early teenager, we used to go to downtown Belfast on Saturday afternoons to watch the bombs. It was “fun.” They would cordon off an area and we’d watch from a supposedly safe distance while a thousand pounds of home-made explosives went off. For a teenager, that’s pretty entertaining stuff, so there was a level of ambient violence while I was there.
As I came to Canada, I was very interested in military stuff just because I grew up around soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, equipment and guns. I really got into that as a kid for fairly obvious reasons. When I came to Canada, I wanted to carry on with that, and I did a three year diploma at Algonquin College and War Museum, specializing in military hardware, firearms conservation and hardware. I worked in the National War Museum learning how to both technically understand and also restore antique guns and all that kind of stuff. I ended up with so much experience in weapons, etc. that the RCMP approached me and said, “With your experience, we’d really like to hire you in the area of forensic science. What’s your degree in?” I said, “I don’t have a degree.” They said, “Go get one. We’ll hire you as soon as you get your degree. With your experience in firearms, we don’t care which degree, just get one and we’ll hire you.” So I ended up getting a degree in military history and US foreign policy. Little did I know that understanding US foreign policy would be so enmeshed with the mess over in Cambodia.
That was sort of a blip. Then I went onto my career in forensic science where I was posted in Vancouver as “Mr. Gun” in firearms. My job is linking bullets to guns or in the case of serious crimes, going right from the scene with various forensic items: bullets, bodies, clothing, vehicles, through to autopsy, examination of the wounds, determining direction and range of the gun from the victim, including laboratory work using microscopes to match bullets to particular guns, then right through to court presentation. We’re trained in presenting hard evidence and being cross-examined and being able to withstand cross-examination of expert testimony.
As I look back on that whole history—my familiarity with violence, extensive knowledge of firearms, museum training in display techniques (communication, display, and artefacts) and the whole issue of presenting information appropriately to a given audience, as well as my knowledge of recent history in South East Asia—all of that was pre-training. Everything I needed to get dropped into Cambodia, I already had. It was amazing how God structured that.
In terms of getting involved in Cambodia, that was a total accident. I ended up out here (in Vancouver) posted by the RCMP while my family was back in Ottawa. I was lonely, not feeling like I was plugging into Vancouver, not enjoying it very much. I remember saying to God, “You better get me some friends here” and He provided a phone call that same day from a student I knew from Ottawa who had flown in to attend a two-week course at Regent College. He invited me to a barbecue where he didn’t know anyone either. So I went down to Spanish Banks on the beach where all these people were trying to cook the most bizarre foods imaginable—burning them on the outside, leaving them raw in the middle—whole chickens and everything and it just wasn’t working. It turns out they were all Asians from mainland China, Thailand, Singapore, and so on. I hadn’t had much experience with Asians. It was a group called International Friends from Intervarsity at UBC. I was intrigued by these people and liked them very much. They asked me to attend their weekly Bible study where I found they were very efficient head-hunters: they spotted my answers in these Bible studies and saw how I was communicating with them and soon recruited me to help leading.
But very soon I realized that where I was coming from with a Western mindset was not connecting well with the Asians. I didn’t connect with how they were thinking or why they thought what they thought or how they perceived Christianity which was really Western Christian. I knew that if I was really to be of service to these students, to truly relate to them, it meant flying to Cambodia, walking out of the airport with no plans, being scared to death and wondering, “How am I going to deal with this? Where am I going to sleep tonight?”
So I planned a trip to Asia to do just that. My first stop was Hong Kong. I thought, “Go easy on yourself to begin with.” Hong Kong was easy to survive in. The next trip was to Bangkok and that was not easy. That was a bizarre trip with no plans and no experience. I ended up staying in a little shanty town which was run as sort of an ad hoc guest house by a woman who hired northern Thai girls to keep them out of prostitution. They made money running this guest house to provide for their families. They hosted hitchhikers with no hint of it being a brothel. For the next three or four trips, I would always stay there. However, it was hot and sweaty—a horrible little place—but anyways, they were making money and I really wanted to support them in that process.
Before I left on that first trip, a lady contacted me who had a daughter working for the Christian Missionary Alliance in Thailand. She had me deliver a care package to her in Bangkok, but her team was actually working on the Thai / Cambodian border, so I had an in. I drove up to the Thai / Cambodian border on the usual Thai bus. As we travelled, civilians would get off and more and more soldiers would get on. The scene started to change from cars, trucks, and tractors to military trucks, then military armed personnel carriers and then into tanks. I thought, “Where are we going?”
It turned out that we were heading up into a war zone that was a border area, where I had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp run by the Khmer Rouge that was actively being shelled at the time. I had seen a lot in Belfast, but I had never seen anything quite like this. Forty-two thousand people were stuck in this refugee camp, some of them for ten or twelve years, under very difficult psychological circumstances. Their physical circumstances weren’t too bad when there was no shelling, but it was bad when there was fighting. I became very irritated. This was in October 1989 just as the Vietnamese troops were withdrawing from Cambodia. I was ticked at the media for not educating me about this. I thought I was wise to the world, but nobody had told me what was happening in Cambodia—I was appalled at what I was seeing. I came home determined to study this. As I read about the killing fields, I was devastated to learn what I hadn’t learned before. I had heard the name Pol Pot before, but having studied through my history degree on Maoism and Stalinism and Nazism, I was shocked to find that there was another revolution more violent, more Satanic in it’s structure, more devastating to it’s population, where you have eight million and in three years, they kill three or three and a half million. The stats are ridiculous in terms of what they did to that society.
Just as all that started to sink in after three or four days of heavy reading as soon as I got home, there was a documentary on TV called “Cambodia – Year Ten” by John Pilger, a very powerful journalist from Britain with sway in the political world (not as much in the US who lean to American media—but in the rest of the world he’s well known). In this documentary, he blames the West for what’s happening in Cambodia, and being Irish, I don’t take things laying down, and being in the RCMP, as Mr. Establishment, I took total offence to what he was saying. I was determined to give him a call. I waited for the credits to get his name, and I figured that since he had a British accent, I’d call directory assistance London, which I did, at 10 o’clock at night which is 6:00 am there. I asked for J. Pilger and the operator said, “Are you nuts? Do you know how many there are? How many would you like? I’ve got loads.” I say, “Okay, give me the first one.” It turns out he’s actually an Australian journalist living in London and on the first try, he answers the phone and it’s his voice.
I proceeded to tear strips off him for blaming the West for this stuff. He was gracious—more gracious than he needed to be—and he said, “Wait a minute. Have you been inside Cambodia?” I said no, but that I’d been in the camps on the border. So he replied, “We’re not going to have this conversation. You get inside of Cambodia, have a look around for yourself, and when you get back, call me and we’ll have this conversation.” So I proceeded to do that. It took me five months to get into the country. It was a very isolated country at that time with various UN embargos around it. I went in, looked around, and not only saw that he was correct about the isolation that the UN was creating from the West, but also the devastation that the embargos were creating within the country. I came back and basically apologized and we became acquaintances and friends since then.
What I had seen on that first trip inspired me to go back and to bring some medicine. My plan was to bring back two suitcases of carefully selected medications. I figured that two suitcases could save hundreds of lives with just the right meds. I talked to various people to figure out what was really useful and started to pursue that around the lower mainland hospitals and pharmaceutical companies and wound up with nine tons. I had to find a way to get nine tons of medicine into Cambodia (a long story). We got it into Cambodia where it was seized by the government. After two weeks of serious negotiations with the communist regime who knew that the medicine was worth $100,000 with no intentions of giving it to people—they were going to sell it—but I cajoled and cajoled and eventually, through a long circuitous route, we won. They stuck me on state-run TV with the Deputy Minister of Health presenting this medication, then I was allowed to distribute it. That night, I went to the TV station and scrounged a tape of the press release, all in Khmer of course, but it didn’t matter to me.
I came home and showed it to friends. They said, “You’re absolutely crazy but this worked. Here’s some more money. Go do it again.” And a charity, the Ratanak Foundation was born, named after this little girl who died on the border out there the first time, who died needlessly because of the acts of individual and groups who prevented her from getting medication and care that would have kept her alive.
So we don’t ship any more. But we find Christian mission organizations who are really good at what they do. I view myself as a broker. If you are looking to put money into an RSP, you go to a broker who will let you know which companies are solid and which are going to make you money. You need to talk to someone with experience. I don’t think it’s any different with missions. There are a lot of well meaning individuals out there, Christian and not Christian, who want to give money to charity and/or Christian missions. But they don’t know who is good, who is squandering the money and who is using the money well. I know. I know people in Cambodia who are well-meaning but don’t know what they are doing. They’re wasting money. I also know people there with no resources who’ve been there fifteen to twenty-five years and really know their stuff and dream of doing this or that project. I’m in a position to put the two together: those who want to give money and see it well spent with people there with all kinds of ideas and skills to make it work well, but don’t have the resources. I serve as a bridge between the two.
I’m constantly going over to Cambodia, meeting with new people who have different ideas for new projects, evaluating those projects because after fifteen years, I have a good idea of what projects will work or not work societally and culturally and then also meeting with people here and doing public speaking to those who want their money to go to the fields and know it’s not being wasted on admin or whatever else. So that’s a fifteen year history of how I got to this point.
Clarion: Can you tell me about some of the things you are addressing now in Cambodia? I noticed on the website that you’re helping out with medical services and also addressing child prostitution. What are some of the hotspots?
Brian: The history of Ratanak has mostly been mostly medical, inspired by Ratanak, the little girl who died. We’ve been involved in emergency rice distribution, agricultural programs, but the emphasis has been mostly medical. When you start getting involved in medical services in Cambodia, that leads you into building hospitals and clinics, which is what we’ve been doing. Staff people go in to train ministry of health people to provide medical service. Eventually, we can move out and recommend people to that hospital. When you start working in hospitals there, it doesn’t take long to realize that a lot of people are dieing, particularly of AIDS there. When those people die, you realize that there children are left literally standing there in the hospital. Their parents are dead; there are no social services or anything for those children. So I’ve funded several programs now where arrangements are made with the parents before they die so that the kids can be taken to a state orphanage where they can be cared for and nurtured. If the parents are well enough, they might even get to visit the orphanage before they die so they can rest that their kids are safe. Some of this involves AIDS hospice work as well for the parents.
So when you go from medical work to providing a social service for kids who would otherwise be out on the streets in a brutal third world environment. You start to get to know these kids and then you start to hear stories about how these kids are subject to horrendous abuse, sometimes even while the parents are still alive. When you start to ask more questions, you realize that there are thousands of these kids who are bought and sold. There is an entire underworld of sex slavery and child prostitution. The reality of sex slavery and brothels begins to bubble up through the projects you’re already working on. So this has been on my mind for a number of years. But how do you go from running a charity to running a project that intersects directly with criminal behaviour—a very difficult transition to make.
That happened just over a year ago when the Vancouver City Police asked me to be involved in a case involving a pedophile. That was the opportunity I needed. They needed my Cambodian for the case. I didn’t know it at the time—I was happy to assist in principle—but what I realize now is that it introduced the topic to me and cemented relationships which were tenuous with other organizations working in this area. We went over as an investigative team, not as a charity and met with many people who were involved with this secular government. It became very clear that organizations like International Justice Mission can rescue these kids. They have the capability—great surveillance people, great undercover people, they can do the operation, they have trusted police officers they work with. But what do you do with the children once you’ve rescued them. You go into a brothel, you rescue twenty kids. Then what do you do? There are no social services to deal with the type of trauma they’ve been through. The big project we’re working on is putting together a rehab center for these little children. In some ways, it’s a drop in the bucket. There are thousands of kids involved. We can take in a maximum of sixty at a time for a two year program of trauma counselling, psychological therapy, physical therapy as well—some of them are really badly injured by what’s been done to them—they service a lot of adult males per day. By stature they’re small people anyway and we’re talking only five, six, seven to ten years old. They’re brutalized. There’s a long long way for us to go with these children and the first stage alone is this two year trauma counselling program. So we’re funding and emphasizing that now—it’s the center-piece of what we’re doing. It’s what’s really motivating me at the moment. In the future, we’ll look into orphanages and further care of these kids later but for now, the first thing is to get this two year program started up.
On the one hand, it’s very exciting. On the other, it’s very depressing because it is just a drop in the bucket. A long time ago, my dad encouraged me, “One life at a time.” That’s what I have to do. After fifteen years of work in Cambodia, if you look at the nation and the system as a whole, it’s very depressing. But if you look at individual lives, both physically and spiritually, saved and know joy now. Some of them have gone on, got married, from whatever medical programs that we’ve run, and live relatively normal lives now. My hope is that when this program, which we start building in November and will be opening in March…that some of those girls will have a normal life and might even know a God that loves them. If I focus on one life at a time, it’s tremendously exhilarating.
In terms of the actual model of what we’re working with spiritually, we’re dealing with children who have been bought and sold, many of them don’t even know their identity, where they came from. They are sold as a commodity for profit and abused in the process. They have no understanding of trusting adults—quite the contrary—no concept of a strong family unit, no place to go where they are safe. It is so foundational for us that a child runs home, runs to mom—all those pillars that we understand as absolutely fundamental and basic to children, they’ve never known.
And yet into this context, we can bring physical healing and psychological healing. We need to be careful, because we need the support of the Cambodian government to continue this. That’s the way we’ve structured this. Not all of our projects are open Christian missionary projects, but they are all staffed by very strong evangelical Christians who live their lives. And if you live your life the way you should, you won’t have to write missions into your program. It will just be there. As we’ve found over and over in our programs, Khmers ask, “Why are you here? Why are you doing this when you could live in the luxury of the West.” That gives us an opportunity to say, “Well, you’re valuable before God. You are not just some biological organism that we can ignore. You have intrinsic value. You are as valuable as anyone in the West and we love you and this is what motivates us.”
In the long run, that has led to whole churches developing out of medical programs. There is nothing written into that kind of medical program for that kind of project. And that’s the kind of model that we need to be using in the third world. We give of ourselves out of who we are and missions will take care of itself. We need to be careful about how overtly Christian we are in our rehab program—the government can get antsy about that. It’s a Buddhist / post-Communist, thoroughly secular and corrupt government. We need to avoid antagonizing people. But having said that, the children will quickly learn, “I can trust this caregiver—this person actually cares about me—I’ve never met anyone like that before in my life.” Gradually, as they gain trust, I long for them to know what motivates their care.