Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday called for the closure of a Christian anti-trafficking NGO during a heated tirade at a graduation ceremony, condemning them and CNN for broadcasting an “insulting” story about girls who were sold into sexual slavery by their own mothers.
But in the unpaved streets of the once notorious Svay Pak commune, where Agape International Missions (AIM) has been established since 2005, the community yesterday despaired at the thought of the charity’s closure.
AIM featured prominently in a recent CNN report, which revisited three girls who were reportedly sold into sex slavery by their impoverished family members. It was initially headlined The Cambodian girls sold for sex by their mothers, which sparked ire on social media because one of the victims spoke Vietnamese. The word “Cambodian” was later dropped from the headline.
“This is a serious insult,” Hun Sen said yesterday, commanding the interior and foreign ministries to investigate.
“In many countries, for only drawing cartoons their magazine must be shut down, but in our country, we are insulted [to the point of] saying that mothers sold children to become prostitutes.”
“We cannot accept this big insult, and we are going to close the NGO involved.”
On Monday a CNN spokesperson said the report had highlighted Cambodia’s progress in eradicating the trade, adding, “We stand by our reporting”.
Hun Sen, however, was unassuaged yesterday, hinting at the possibility of protests at the US Embassy – which he also asked to investigate the NGO – and appearing to draw a parallel between the CNN story and the devastating US bombing campaign of the 1970s. He then went on to side with US President Donald Trump, who has himself been highly critical of CNN.
“CNN of the United States deserves to be cursed by Donald Trump. It’s not wrong. [I] support President Donald Trump who cursed CNN,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak would only say “the investigation is in progress now” before hanging up.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also weighed in, saying AIM had made a “major mistake” and manipulated the truth for their own financial gain.
“In our Cambodian culture, we don’t have a tradition to sell children, even though we are in a desperate situation,” the ministry said in a statement, which came on the same day police announced they were investigating a case of a woman who allegedly sold her baby daughter for $125 in Preah Vihear.
News of the premier’s calls for AIM’s closure, however, came as a blow to many residents in Svay Pak on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where the NGO has established centres to train women to sew, educate children and offer medical care, as well as a boxing gym.
The poverty remains palpable in the fishing community, where many residents are ethnic Vietnamese, but it is no longer the infamous child prostitution destination it was the 1990s and early 2000s after brothels were shuttered in 2005.
Motodop Ya Saley, 65, said he was “very happy” with AIM, as his daughter had been given a sewing job after the NGO saw their poverty. “They help sex trafficking victims to get another skill. They even help the poor children to get an education,” he said.
As for the child trafficking and prostitution that once dominated the district, Saley said that had “completely closed down”.
Ros Chantra, 31, said the NGO had helped see a reduction in robberies and drug trafficking. His wife, he said, also worked in sewing and had benefitted from their help since she was young.
“Because her mother is very poor, she brought her here . . . [Without AIM’s help] she may not have survived, because they could not even afford food.”
AIM founder Don Brewster said he was unable to comment yesterday, but two people who work with AIM, who asked to remain anonymous, said they would be filled with regret if AIM were to close.
“I would be afraid to lose this NGO. I would be very sad if I lost my job. This is very important for the community,” said one.
“For children who have a lack of warmth from their family, we teach them,” said another.
AIM has also conducted raids alongside local anti-trafficking police to free victims. The organisation claims to have rescued 600 people last year – including 100 children – and has received multiple government letters thanking them, one as recently as last week. But AIM’s legacy has been chequered. In 2014 a former AIM volunteer was convicted of raping children in his care.
US Embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes said the US government was proud to contribute to Cambodia’s “impressive strides countering child sex trafficking”.
“However, challenges remain. We believe that committed NGOs, working closely with the Government and the international community, are a very important part of the solution,” he said in an email, declining to address Hun Sen’s calls for an embassy investigation.
World Vision’s Aimyleen Gabriel declined to comment on AIM’s case, but said that sex trafficking in Cambodia was “evolving”, and “remains a major issue needing more attention from all sectors of society”.
Chak Sopheap, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, agreed, suggesting the government commit to solving the problem of sexual exploitation rather than dwelling on bad press, adding that no NGO should be shut down without a thorough investigation first.
“Human trafficking, including that of children for sexual exploitation, remains a concerning issue in Cambodia. It is therefore essential that the [Cambodian government] focuse[s] on eradicating such practices, rather than appearing to deny the gravity of the issue,” she said in an email.
Targeting an NGO for “simply for sharing its findings with the media” was “deeply troubling” and “a predictable result” of the much-maligned NGO Law, Sopheap said.