Seila, a tall, heavily made-up woman with orange-blonde hair, said she was in a park in Siem Reap last year when policemen approached her, put a gun to her head and told her if she ran, they would shoot.
Her only crime, she says, is being transgender, which in Cambodia, advocates contend, is more than enough.
Legally, the Kingdom’s Constitution protects the equal rights of its citizens regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. But at an International Human Rights Day discussion yesterday, NGOs and activists say increasing anecdotal evidence shows that incidents of bigotry, harassment and abuse are commonplace.
“It happens every day, we are discriminated against and stigmatised by authorities,” said Seila, a transgender outreach worker.
“They want men who have sex with men to not meet in public places,” she said. “Sometimes they want to have sex [with the transgender sex workers] and not pay them.”
In interviews with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and queer) individuals allege being targeted and exploited by police, subject to verbal harassment, beatings and gang rape.
“When they see us walking in the street they laugh at us, and call us bad words … and fight us. And they look at us as if we are strange people,” said Sou Sotheavy, 69, the transgender director of NGO Cambodian Network Men Women Development.
Reliable statistics and documentation of police discrimination or gender-based brutality are scarce, especially since, fearing further abuse and stigma, LGBTQ individuals rarely report the instances.
“We know it’s happening, but we do not have exact data,” said Nuon Sidara, director of CCHR’s sexual orientation and gender-identity program.
The government denies any systemic LGBTQ discrimination takes place.
“They seem to be saying that police are as bad as the Pol Pot regime.… I appeal to them to speak with proof,” said national police spokesman Kirth Chantharith.
Advocates say the government has sometimes endorsed the violence, and in 2007, Premier Hun Sen publicly disowned his adopted daughter for coming out.
But yesterday, participants said ending the harassment starts at the policy level.
“We don’t need special rights, we just need our human rights guaranteed,” said Sidara.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID