Children are victims as murder-suicides rise in East Asia

October 2nd, 2008 - 10:37 am ICT by IANS  

Hong Kong, Oct 2 (DPA) Businessman’s son Leung Tze-ho was only a few days away from his third birthday when he was found dead in his Hong Kong home, curled up in the lifeless arms of his mother and father.Messages left by his seemingly well-off parents indicated they faced financial ruin and decided to kill themselves. But why did they take their son with them to the grave?

Murder-suicides involving children are on the rise in Hong Kong and other Chinese societies across Asia - and researchers examining the tragic trend believe a deluded sense of kindness lies behind the killings.

In Hong Kong, the number of cases has risen from five to six a year in the past 10 years while in Taiwan, the annual rate has leapt from around six to 28 a year, a joint study by Hong Kong and Macau universities has found.

Some cases are particularly shocking.

In October 2007, a 36-year-old Hong Kong mother whose husband had cancer tied up the hands and feet of her nine-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter and pushed them from the 24th floor of a building. She then leapt to her death herself.

In August this year, a 33-year-old father in financial difficulties was found dead with his three-year-old daughter after lighting charcoal and lying down with her in the bedroom of his Hong Kong apartment.

A detailed study of police and coroners reports including suicide notes related to murder-suicides in Hong Kong over the past two decades found child killers often believe they are acting out of love.

Murder-suicides in Asia are more likely to involve children than such cases overseas.

“Suicide involving the killing of children is not common in western countries. It happens more in Asian countries,” said Paul Yip Siu-fai, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Suicide Research and Prevention Centre and co-author of the report.

“Here in Hong Kong, about 20 percent of homicide-suicide cases involve children.”

In the majority of cases involving children in Hong Kong, the researchers found, the motive on the part of the killers was altruism - the belief that it is kinder to kill the child rather than leave him or her alone in the world.

“This type of perpetrator is generally the breadwinner of a family and tends to be overly responsible for the family,” according to the report, to be published shortly in the international Journal of Affective Disorders.

“The event is often precipitated by the suicidal deliberation of the perpetrator whose primary motive for killing is altruistic desire to protect the victim from life.”

Yip explained: “We call it delusional altruism. The parent or parents think they are doing something good for the victim. It is not true. It is just that in their state of mind, they believe it is the best option for the children.

“In the case of two-year-old Leung Tze-ho, it was clear that the two parents loved the child. They felt that if they left the child behind, they couldn’t tell what would happen to him. They thought it was the best option for this young boy to die with them, which is very unfortunate.

“In Chinese communities, some people see young children as their possessions. They think they own them. They see death as the best possible outcome for those who will remain by themselves if both of the parents are gone.”

The trend also reflects the general sense of social isolation which many people in Hong Kong feel, Yip believes. If Leung Tze-ho’s parents decided they wanted to die, why was there no one they could leave their son with?

“We see many situations in Hong Kong where people do not know even know the people who live next door to them,” he said. “They are disconnected from society and this is very common in Hong Kong. In western countries, this does not happen so much.

“They don’t have anyone to turn to for help. The other thing is that they do not want to put a burden on other people. Men in particular find it difficult to seek help. Only 20 cent of suicidal people in Hong Kong seek help. The other 80 percent don’t seek any help.”

Two key factors appear to be driving up the rate of murder-suicide. The first is the declining economy which has seen a marked rise in the number of professional people committing suicide in Hong Kong in recent months.

The second aspect is the emergence since 1998 of charcoal burning as a popular method of suicide in Hong Kong. It is now the second most common method of suicide after jumping from high buildings and has been widely used in suicide pacts.

“It is very drastic to throw a baby or child out of a window but when you burn charcoal it is much less violent,” said Yip. “Charcoal burning provides a convenient method in these cases.”

Suicide prevention workers are already taking steps to try to tackle some of the factors driving Hong Kong’s murder-suicide rate up by controlling the availability of charcoal and pressing for front-line police and social workers to be alert to “warning signs” from suicide-risk families.

The best guardians against more murder-suicides, however, may turn out to be neighbours and friends, according to Yip.

“Everybody can be a gatekeeper,” he said. “Apparently the father of Leung Tze-ho withdrew money from the bank and the family sold things before the tragedy, so there were signs and symptoms.

“If we see people facing some kind of financial crisis or relationship problems, we have to be more careful and pay more attention to them. That way we may be able to save lives.”

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