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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Breaking bread with the US feds

Bill Bainbridge (left) with former managing editor Michael J. Coren (right) at the old office of The Post. Photo supplied
Bill Bainbridge (left) with former managing editor Michael J. Coren (right) at the old office of The Post. Photo supplied

Breaking bread with the US feds

I remember the day in September 2001, perched on a big old desk in the office on Street 264 and lamenting to Rob Carmichael that I couldn’t find a good story for that week’s edition.

But when things turn in Phnom Penh, they turn quickly. Minutes later my phone rang. Within an hour I was trailing a convoy of Tuol Kork cops under full siren through the streets of what, in those days, was one of the town’s seedier neighbourhoods.

The Post had done a lot of great reporting over the previous few years tracking the boom in “orphans” for sale to foreigners who suffered deep longing and fat wallets. I’d fished around with a local rights NGO to see if the business was still in full swing. It sure was, and when the police convoy stopped, we found a house with a dozen infants being prepped for adoption.

Arrests were made, the cops dumped a couple of infants in my arms and told me to get them somewhere they could be looked after (which, with the help of the NGO worker, we did), and a whole web of human trafficking unfolded before us.

Over the next months we tracked every angle of the story; vulnerable women tricked into giving up their babies, well-meaning but naïve adoptive parents who hoped to save a child from a life of poverty; slick but sleazy middle men who knew how to exploit all that vulnerability. The web extended from the village to the very top of Cambodia’s political system. Adoptions from the United States were halted and the biggest adoption facilitator of all, Hawaiian-based Lauryn Galindo (most famous for facilitating Angelina Jolie’s adoption) was sentenced to 18 months in a US jail.

It wasn’t without risk. I always felt safe but the human rights worker had to go into hiding for a short while then shift jobs. Lon Nara managed to prise some extraordinary information from his contacts inside the Ministry of Social Affairs, the kind of information that could make some powerful people very, very angry.

The US federal agents who quietly investigated the network invited me to dinner the night before they left Phnom Penh. They had with them a folder full of clippings from The Post.

One held it in front of him and flipped through the pages. “We just wanted you to know, this is where it began,” he said.

Bill Bainbridge was a reporter at The Post for about two – and –a-half years (Jan 2001 to Sep 2003). These days he works as a producer at ABC TV in Melbourne and teaches journalism at La Trobe university.

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