Women wait outside a brothel in Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian government’s approach to the hoary age-old question of sex tourism is one of containment and diminution, rather than an outright outlawing of the trade.
Minister of Tourism Thong Khon told the Post he believed no Southeast Asian country could eradicate the sex trade, and the sex tourism that is part of that trade, and that management is a more effective policy.
The minister said the government has no policy to encourage sex tourism, but rather a day-to-day policy of “how to manage it and how to reduce it.”
“I think that all over the world, no country can abolish sex tourism.
“Cambodia does not have a policy to encourage sex tourism. But the question is how to manage it,” he said.
Some individual businesses, especially some hotels, have also taken responsibility for helping to contain sex tourism and the trendy La Pavilion guesthouse, for example, advertises “no sex tourists” on its promotional website.
But while the minister talked about containment of the sex tourism industry, he made it clear to the Post that the government has zero tolerance for paedophilia.
“The government has a strict policy on child sex, and that policy is ‘No underage sex tourism,’” he said.
“With child sex tourism, (we are) absolutely against it.”
The NGO and business community have also combined to get across the message of abhorrence and outrage over the child sex issue and visitor’s guides carry grim advertisements warning against this practice.
One such advertisement, sponsored by the Ministry of Interior and National Police, the Ministry of Tourism and World Vision, carries the clear message: “Sexually Exploit a Child in This Country, Go to Jail Here or at Home.”
And there are signs this message is also being driven home to locals, and motivating them to help protect their own interests.
The Post recently witnessed an encouraging scene in the busy Riverside area; an elderly Western gent was displaying obvious over-interest in a little boy, fawning over him and patting him, when four Cambodian girls emerged on the scene, hitting him with handbags until he scurried away.
In Cambodia, Liz Anderson, author of Red Lights and Green Lizards, wrote about her medical work on the infamous dyke at Toul Kork during 1992-93. The prostitute population on the dyke numbered about 2,000 and serviced mainly a domestic trade.
But that quickly changed with the arrival of the precursors of the sex tourists – foreign troops, in the guise of United Nations peace keeping forces. They flocked to the dyke and instantly lifted the incidence of the more hardcore sexually transmitted diseases in the prostitute community.
Fifteen years later, due in part to work of numerous NGOs and government groups, STDs are now largely kept at bay among the more “organized” bar girl trade in Phnom Penh – perhaps another reason to support the government’s policy of containment, management, and non-promotion.