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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Cambodia brothels under threat
By Eric Unmacht
BBC's East Asia Today, Phnom Penh

Cambodia's most notorious red light district, known as Svay Pak, has been a virtual playground for sex tourists and foreign paedophiles for over a decade.

Despite the freewheeling nature of the brothel owners and clientele who boast about the availability of young girls on websites, activists have never been able to shut it down.

Phnom Penh's street children
Street children are particularly at risk of being drawn into prostitution
That is why human rights workers and officials reacted with scepticism when an aggressive, US-based Christian organisation recently announced it had inspired authorities to do what others have tried to do for years, strike a stinging blow to Cambodia's human trafficking network.

The dusty town of Svay Pak, also know as K-11, is exactly 11 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

Motorbikes and cars crawl down the narrow strip, kicking up dust in the searing late-afternoon heat, while men and women outside the shanties motion to a few young girls in platform shoes and tight tops.

What we have seen recently is that anyone can go to certain establishments and be offered seven or eight children under the age of 10
Naly Pilorge, human rights worker
But one week after a police raid on the brothels, the area looks more like a broken-down theatre set after a performance, than the thriving brothel scene it used to be.

In the raid, the authorities arrested 13 suspects and rescued nearly 40 trafficking victims, some as young as five years old.

They were taken to this safe-house in the capital, where they began the long process of rehabilitation.

The girls here were brought from Vietnam and forced to be sex workers.

Most of them were reportedly tortured or abused along the way like 19-year-old Naet.

"My uncle said that they needed someone to work with a family in Phnom Penh. But when I got there, the husband used a towel to put in my mouth and raped me," she said.

"Then the wife sold me to a brothel for $200. At the brothel if I refused a customer they would torture me. They asked me to make myself beautiful but I did not know how to do it, so they beat me."

Fighting this kind of abuse is not easy. But anti-trafficking groups say the government could be doing a lot more.

Co-operation

Even the Minister for Women's Affairs, Mu Sochua, has accused her own government of not doing enough:

"I think the combating of the trafficking of human beings is never easy. But at the same time, the government as a whole must show that there are signs of decrease in trafficking of human beings, which is not the case at the moment."

Sao Choeurth is the technical co-ordinator of the women's advocacy group Afesip, which helps to rescue and rehabilitate victims of trafficking.

He is even more critical of the Cambodian Government, saying some officials are directly implicated in the trafficking trade.

"Spend one day at the Cambodian and Vietnamese border and you will see a very nice car, land cruiser, with air con and the car plate is of a Cambodian official and inside there are Vietnamese girls who have been brought to the border to Phnom Penh."

Stung by this kind of criticism, the government has agreed to co-operate with an aggressive Christian group to clean up their image.

'Cosmetic' solution

The group-called International Justice Mission (IJM) uses former law enforcement agents, private investigators and department of justice workers with hi-tech equipment to investigate and perform raids and rescues.

"We were able to provide them initial information with they were able to follow up on and were able to conduct the law enforcement action, which was very successful," said Sharon Cohn is a legal representative for IJM.

"We were very pleased with the Cambodian Government's response on this. They were very motivated," she said.

But critics of IJM's so-called "paratroop" missions say the raids are largely cosmetic and fail to put a dent in the real problem.

IJM has been criticised for taking a narrow approach to a complicated problem, focusing too much on arrests and refusing to co-ordinate their activities with others in the country.

In the end, all sides agree that those who are arrested are never those most responsible.

"What we are seeing is a few raids, but what I would like to see, at the highest level, is the breaking down of this network structure," said Naly Pilorge of the human rights group Licadho.

"We are not just talking about parents selling children, pimps selling children... we are talking about people who benefit and allow these establishments to operate. The latter is at the very highest level of government," she said.

Business as usual?

A visit to Svay Pak shows that the brothels are still operating even after the raid.

Not long after we got there, we were openly offered underage girls and virgins.

White sheets of printing paper with the signatures of authorities scrawled across them hang on the doors of a few closed brothels.

But the "Mama-sans" said the girls are now being kept at houses and hotels near the main strip, a push further underground dreaded by groups focusing on rescues.

According to Naly Pilorge, despite all the talk, not much has changed.

"Two years ago, it was much more difficult to buy and find sex. What we have seen recently is that anyone can go to certain establishments and be offered seven or eight children under the age of 10," she said.

"There seems to be a little change, but superficial. Some establishments are closed, but if you pay the right person, you can still go in back."

It seems that despite the high profile raids, the trafficking trade goes on.


SEE ALSO:
Cambodia shuts down red-light district
23 Jan 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia pressed over sex trade
21 Aug 02  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia jails Italian for child sex
16 Jul 02  |  Asia-Pacific
Glitter deported from Cambodia
07 Jan 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia arrests Vietnamese girls
20 Jun 02  |  Asia-Pacific
Demand for action on child sex trade
20 Dec 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Cambodia
26 Feb 02  |  Country profiles


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