Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Against all odds

Against all odds

Against all odds

Any day now, the White House is expected to release the Reassessment

List of countries ranked by their efforts to combat human trafficking. For Cambodia,

which was demoted this year to the lowest tier, the updated report card will also

determine whether the US will enforce economic sanctions. Liam Cochrane looks at

the politics of Cambodia's tier drop and how American pressure has affected anti-trafficking


On June 3, the United States took Cambodia from its comfortable-but-not-perfect Tier

2 ranking in the global effort to fight human trafficking, bypassed the purgatorial

Tier 2 Watchlist, and dumped the Kingdom into Tier 3.

The move took many by surprise and put the Kingdom in dubious company: Burma, Sudan,

North Korea and 10 others.

It was seen as a wake-up call to the Cambodian government, after an NGO shelter housing

83 women taken from the now-infamous Chhai Hour II hotel was counter-raided by brothel

staff and thugs in December 2004. The women were taken from the shelter and many

of them went back to work in Chhai Hour II hotel, providing karaoke, massage, and

paid sex in central Phnom Penh.

The US State Department's 2005 Trafficking in Persons report referred specifically

to the raid and counter-raid, saying "the Cambodian government's failure to

act calls into question Cambodia's commitment to combating human trafficking."

John Miller, the US "Ambassador-at-large on international slavery," put

it more bluntly in a speech announcing the global report card: "Cambodia is

on Tier 3 because of government complicity in trafficking in persons."

The Tier demotion also occurred among shifting Cambodian-US diplomatic relations.

During a June 2003 visit by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cambodia signed

an "Article 98 agreement," promising not to surrender US citizens accused

of war crimes to the International Criminal Court. In return, the US overturned their

moratorium of military aid to Cambodia in early August.

Similarly, the December 2004 convictions and life sentences for three Jemaah Islamiyah

terrorists - despite a dearth of evidence at the trial - was followed by the June

arrest in California of Chhun Yasith, who stands accused of leading the Cambodian

Freedom Fighters, an anti-Hun Sen rebel group. While the US embassy in Phnom Penh

continues to be one of the strongest voices in the diplomatic community on matters

of human rights abuses and persecution of the opposition party, it seemed their relationship

on other issues was going according to Hun Sen's "win-win" political strategy.

But just two days after the US arrested Yasith, news came of the Tier 3 listing,

bringing with it the threat of sanctions if Cambodia did not demonstrate its willingness

to improve its anti-trafficking efforts in the eyes of the Americans. Possible sanctions

included US withholding "non-humanitarian, non-trade related assistance"

and "funding for participation in educational and cultural exchange programs."

Perhaps more importantly, the US could also throw its weight against World Bank or

IMF funding for non-humanitarian, non-trade programs.

Initially, Cambodia's response was indignant.

The Prime Minister's advisor on human rights, Om Yientieng, told media at the time

that the decision was like "evaluating a forest based on one tree" - an

apparent reference to the Chhai Hour II case. Prum Sokha, a secretary of state at

the Ministry of Interior, defended Cambodia's performance, noting the establishment

of the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, a 24-hour hotline,

the rescue of 700 victims and the prosecution of more than 400 trafficking suspects

in 2004.

Within two weeks, however, the US threw Cambodia a lifeline.

Laundry list

On June 14, the US embassy in Phnom Penh called a meeting of NGOs involved in anti-trafficking

efforts. The US ambassador at the time, Charles Ray, told the gathered NGO leaders

that while the tier ranking system was a government-to-government issue, the embassy

would welcome input from civil society on working through the tension. In the context

of this unofficial forum, Ray said that although he was opposed to it, the State

Department had come up with a list of demands. If Cambodia wanted to avoid sanctions,

it had two months to show it was serious about fighting trafficking and enact the

measures. The list has never been officially released but several sources at the

meeting confirm it included:

  • rescuing 100 victims
  • arresting 10 human traffickers and convicting at least three
  • arresting at least five senior government officials on charges of complicity
  • closure of five brothels that offer victims of trafficking
  • reinvestigation of Chhai Hour II hotel

Mixed reactions

Some NGO leaders questioned the appropriateness of a list of demands from a foreign

country. To some, the push to secure convictions implied interference in the judicial

process. Others at the table thought the list was an arbitrary bunch of numbers and

wondered where the figures originated. While the idea of forming a working group

was briefly entertained, in the end, the civil society representatives avoided taking

sides in the sensitive affair and continued their work as normal. "There are

so many networks in this sector, the last thing we need is another one," said

one source who attended the meeting.

Good cop, bad cop

Meanwhile, the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department was still

reeling after December's Chhai Hour II debacle. The department head, one-star General

Un Sokunthea, had been officially warned over the incident, despite receiving approval

from Chief of National Police Hok Lundy well in advance of the raid. Documents recently

obtained by the Post show that approval from Phnom Penh Police Chief Heng Pov was

obtained by telephone just 15 minutes before the raid occurred, providing a tantalizing

hint at the power games at play.

General Sokunthea was unavailable to comment for this story. (She was at a training

session in England for the International Association of Women Police.) Insiders have

predicted Sokunthea - who sits on the board of the Cambodian Red Cross with the PM's

wife, Bun Rany, and has been criticized for stacking her department with friends

and allies - may be "promoted out" of the department in the future.

Corruption scandals have further tarnished the anti-trafficking department in Phnom

Penh. Touch Ngim, a former deputy director who was the key investigator and interviewer

for the Chhai Hour II case, went on the run after an arrest warrant was issued against

him in July. Local media reported that Ngim failed to show up to court to answer

allegations of extortion relating to a brothel raid in Kampong Speu a year ago.


It's difficult to predict just how much aid money could be cut from Cambodia under

sanctions. At last year's Consultative Group meeting between the government and donors,

the United States said it said expected to contribute $44 million to Cambodia in

2005. Much of this, however, is in areas likely to be covered by the humanitarian

waiver. The World Bank currently spends $45 million a year in Cambodia, but this

may change regardless of US pressure, depending on the government's performance against

performance indicators set last year.

Progress towards meeting the US demands has been strong in some areas and hard to

judge in others.

Sun Ro, chief of administration for the MoI's anti-trafficking department, could

not provide figures covering their actions since the June 3 announcement from the

US State Department. As an indication, however, Ro said that since the start of the

year his department has intervened in 54 cases of trafficking, pimping, and child

rape, mostly in Phnom Penh. Of the 71 people arrested, 17 have been convicted, seven

have been released, and 47 remain in detention awaiting trial. There have been 291

victims "rescued," resulting in 56 women and girls sent home to their families

while a further 235 were sent for rehabilitation.

In late June, Phnom Penh municipal anti-trafficking police raided the World One massage

parlor, removing 88 women and arresting four men for pimping, according to human

rights workers. In July, a similar raid was conducted on the Sok San massage and

karaoke club, with the removal of 25 women. In both cases, it was unclear how many,

if any, of the females removed were minors, or were forced to be sex workers.

The vague definition of a "victim" in the context of the US list makes

it unclear whether the "rescue" requirement has been met. Because prostitution

is legal in Cambodia (although "pimping" is not), it could be that only

women and girls who are underage, have been trafficked, or are being forced to work

in the sex trade would technically count as victims.

"If it includes people over 18, they will easily meet the deadline, but if it

is children, no," said a long-term researcher of sexual exploitation and human

trafficking in Cambodia.

Since June, International Justice Mission has monitored the conviction of eight human

traffickers as a result of raids it has conducted, easily satisfying the US demand

of three convictions.

More difficult to evaluate is progress towards arresting five senior government officials

due to the lack of a definition of who would count as "senior." However,

the prosecution of three Ministry of Interior anti-trafficking officials - Touch

Ngim, Thong Kimheng and Rin Saroeun - in late July may well have been an attempt

to satisfy this demand.

As for the US' demand for a reinvestigation of the controversial Chhai Hour II hotel

case, the hotel was raided again on September 8 (long after the two-month deadline

set by the US had expired). The raid was conducted by the Ministry of Interior's

Information Department - essentially an intelligence department - rather than the

anti-trafficking department. It led to the arrest of a male manager and two women

accused of bringing a 16-year-old virgin to the hotel to sell for sex. Chhai Hour

II remains closed. On September 17, hotel owner Te Po Ly, who had fled to Thailand,

was arrested in Koh Kong after being escorted back to Cambodia by a police officer.

But will this be enough? When it comes to the question of sanctions, opinions vary.

In mid-August, the US State Department's senior coordinator for reports to monitor

and combat human trafficking, Mark Taylor, visited Cambodia for several days. Sources

involved in his visit say he was very interested in the issue of brothel raids and

other tangible actions. At that time, the general feeling was that "sanctions

were inevitable," said one source involved in the visit.

The US embassy in Phnom Penh says decisions on tier rankings and sanctions are still

under discussion in Washington and cannot be discussed before the official announcement.

"The White House is expected to release the information this week," wrote

Gannon Sims, from the Public Outreach and Diplomacy section of the State Department's

anti trafficking office in an e-mail received September 21.

With little hint from either government, NGO workers involved in the field are left

to guess.

"Frankly speaking, I do not think there will be sanctions," said an international

expert working closely with the MoI. "I do not see a lot of American funding

on this issue of child and sexual exploitation. Economic sanctions are a political

issue, but regarding the police work, it will not have a big effect," the source

said. "If there is damage, it is more political than technical."

Bill Forbes, senior peace and justice program manager at World Vision, asked the

US embassy whether possible sanctions could - ironically - hurt funding allocated

for anti-trafficking efforts. "We've been assured they won't," Forbes said,

adding that he didn't think the Tier 3 fallout would have a big impact on US funding

to Cambodia.

A member of the anti-trafficking community noted that sanctions would create significant

red tape for USAID staff here if they have to alter funding arrangements already

in place. More sensible, the source said, would be to bump Cambodia up to the Tier

2 Watchlist and use the "scare" of the past three months to push for continuing

results in fighting trafficking.

In hindsight

Just as contentious as the enforcement of sanctions is the question of whether the

aggressive position taken by the US on this issue has helped or hindered Cambodia's

efforts to combat human-trafficking.

"Post-Chhai Hour II, everyone was paralyzed by fear," said a source involved

in combating human trafficking.

Brothels were afraid of being raided, police were afraid of backlash from superiors,

NGO shelters felt vulnerable and the government felt under attack from international

critics, especially the US. As a result, investigations dragged and at one point

the Cambodian government required seven different levels of approval before a raid

could occur, said a source involved in rescues.

However, the release of the US list boosted the Cambodian investigations, said the

source who works with the MoI. "But only two or three cases have been investigated

because of American pressure," the source said, explaining that others were

part of longer-term investigations. Overall, however, the effect of US pressure had

been positive, said the source. "If we want police or the judiciary to progress

... we need countries to make pressure."

Bill Forbes said he had not noticed a dramatic increase in anti-trafficking efforts

but welcomed any pressure to improve.

"The thing that I hope for is that those committed to combating trafficking

in the Cambodian government, through this process, have more space and recourses

to be effective," Forbes said. "And those who need to be challenged are

challenged to be more effective."

Priorities for the future included expanding the capabilities of the MoI and working

with the Ministry of Justice to create a "child-friendly" environment for

victims, he said.

Others were not so upbeat.

One researcher was less confident of the long-term consequences of the Tier 3 shake-up.

"Yes, it is helpful, but not sustainable," the researcher said. "Once

October comes and Cambodia shifts [tiers, the progress made] will all fall down."

So, while many experts have reported an overall positive effect following the tier

demotion, the next real test will come with the release of the Reassessment List

and the inevitable sector-wide and diplomatic reshuffle that the report will bring.


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