​Children of brothels: the long road to rescue | Phnom Penh Post

Children of brothels: the long road to rescue


Publication date
30 May 1997 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

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Nothing is easy in the fight against child trafficking and prostitution. A police

raid this month on a brothel - just one of many catering to Khmers and foreigners

- aptly highlighted the intricacies of child sex business and the law. Gary Way


SVAY PAK - Sobbing, she lays curled in the fetal position facing the wooden wall.

Her mother sits beside her, gently stroking her hair. A sharp order comes from the

doorway, the girl looks to the stranger, an attempt at a smile briefly illuminating

the loss of her baby teeth. Duty done, she turns away.

The stranger, a Japanese journalist named Ito, sits down opposite the 'mamasan',

who reassures him that the girl will be all right. "I will make a special medicine"

she says, "come back this evening." Patting her on the shoulder, Ito departs,

content that - after having sex with the girl for past two nights - he can do the

same tonight. That was the deal: $500 for three full nights with the girl, a virgin

he deflowered with the help of whatever drugs the 'mamasan' gave her.

An Australian and a German enter a little after eleven o'clock in the morning. They

give greetings of "great place, mate" and "just here on a visa run".

Small talk is swapped. A couple of Tiger beers later, the Australian settles for

an 11-year-old. The German orders another beer before taking her 12-year-old sister

to a neighboring room.

Outdoors, a Vietnamese pimp on a moto discusses business with Lan Sokha, the 'mamasan'

or brothel owner, while two police sit nearby. The conversation revolves round an

obviously scared young girl. Sitting on the back of the bike, her complexion and

streaks in her hair give away her rural heritage. "Khmer...a problem,"

Sokha shrugs when asked why she doesn't purchase her.

At the self-contained brothel village of Svay Pak, 11 km from Phnom Penh, Sokha's

specialty is kids, usually Vietnamese ones. Young children trafficked to Cambodia,

sold into prostitution by their mothers, to be used and abused, often by foreigners.

The above events happened in early August last year, several weeks before an NGO

worker convinced police - for the cost of $560 of food and alcohol - to raid the


Despite the rescue of four sexually-abused girls aged between 8-12 in that raid,

no charges were ever laid. The brothel was closed for less than a day. Nearly a year

later, two of the girls are now in the process of being returned to Vietnam, with

the help of local NGOs, into state foster care. More girls were brought across the

border to take their place, according to investigators.

As of early this month, little had changed: a couple of extensions added, a new Marlboro

poster, many of the same clientele, with a few fresh faces. If a metaphor is needed

to describe Cambodia's child sex trade, this brothel is it.

Despite the continued rhetoric of high-ranking police and politicians, child sex

and trafficking in Cambodia continues to flourish. Brothels are prospering, with

the support and protection of police and military officers actively involved in the

child sex trade.

"Thousands of underage children are trafficked within Cambodia and across the

border. It's protected and lucrative, which makes action difficult," says Lawrence

Gray, director of the World Vision Street Kid Center in Phnom Penh. Many of the children

there were formerly sold into the sex business.

Svay Pak is only one of many brothel villages; a sister village of only slightly

smaller proportions is located 2km west along Route 6. According to investigators

and child sex workers, it can be safely said that nearly every brothel in the area

caters to the trafficking and sale of children.

A popular spot for tourist buses - including those of the state-owned Phnom Penh

Tourism which have been seen in the area - Svay Pak is also visited regularly by

police, many of whom oversee its operation. Despite it's size, with an estimated

30-40 children working amongst the registered 280 prostitutes, it's small in comparison

to others.

Investigators have pinpointed another establishment in Stung Meanchey, near the Phnom

Penh refuse tip. Owned by a military general, the place is "by invite only."

An estimated 150 child prostitutes are employed there. Several officials at senior

levels of the government are reliably reported to be among its customers.

No action has yet been taken against that establishment, or many others, but for

Lan Sokha, alias Lan Xian, her time is finally up. She sits in prison cell charged

under the Law on Suppression of the Kidnapping and Trafficking/ Sales of Human Persons

passed by the National Assembly in January, 1996. She faces a maximum penalty of

10-20 years in prison.

Sokha was arrested when her brothel was raided again on the morning of May 15, as

part of a training course for police officers led by Mick Kearney, a visiting law

enforcement consultant employed by End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT)

International. Four girls, aged 12-15, were rescued.

Though hailed as a success by police officials including Gen. Kim Chanee, head of

the Cambodian branch of Interpol, other sources paint a somewhat different picture.

Prior to the raid the brothel was placed under surveillance for two weeks. Nine girls

were photographed there, though other sources in Svay Pak stated 15 girls were employed

in the establishment.

There are avenues of inquiries to locate the missing eleven girls but it is doubtful

they will ever be rescued. The reasons are varied but all point to a lack of willingness

by authorities to pursue the matter.

During the raid six underage girls were originally detained. One accompanied by her

mother was immediately released when it could not be proven that she had sold, or

intended to sell, her daughter into prostitution. Another escaped while under police

guard in the locked brothel. The rescued girls stated that a police officer assisted

her escape through a side window while journalists and human right workers at the

scene were distracted.

Witnesses further stated that an additional two girls were pushed aside by police

officers as they entered the brothel, enabling their escape. Another two girls were

not at the brothel at the time; they had reportedly been taken to the Dusit Hotel

by an American-Chinese man and a Taiwanese associate.

The missing girls are believed to have since been living in safe houses in Svay Pak

and adjoining villages. Apparently used by other brothels in the area, the houses'

locations are unknown.

Attempts to find the girl who escaped out the brothel window also proved futile.

A Mrs Ngiem, identified as the grandmother of the 11-year-old girl, told the Post

that she had been "sold to another brothel". The grandmother refused to

reveal the location and, without a complaint from a witness or the girl, prosecutors

are unable to detain nor even question her.

The reason for the police assistance in helping the girl escape became apparent soon

after the raid. The four rescued girls, after being taken to a safe house by NGO

workers, identified two police officers present in the raid as being part of the

brothel's operation.

According to one of the detained girls, one of the policemen, trained in East Germany,

had acted as a broker for her sale. A contract was drawn up between her mother and

Sokha, with the policeman signing as a witness to its so-called "legality."

Meanwhile, Sokha, after being taken to the local police station, was seen to approach

the two police officers and angrily demand: "Why didn't you tell me they were

coming? Why didn't you warn me?". One replied: "We didn't know they were


How the policemen who allegedly supported the brothel ended up in the team who raided

it is a bizarre point. Kearney had arranged the raid with the chief of Russey Keo

district police, who provided five policemen to take part without telling them in

advance what they were doing. It wasn't until Kearney took them away did they know

they were hitting this particular brothel.

During the raid several of account books kept by the girls were discovered. One girl,

just turned 14, had slept with 36 customers in the first half of May. Of the 36 clients,

28 were identified as foreigners in the accounts. The girl's earnings for each sexual

act were listed as ranging from 3,000 riels to $25. The girl originally lost her

virginity to a Taiwanese man who took her to Sihanoukville for a week.

During the surveillance period, foreigners using the brothel, including both tourists

and expatriates, were photographed and their identification is continuing. Of the

expatriates involved that have been profiled, one is an aid worker.

An official involved in the investigation, who would not be identified, said: "Partial

statements and complaints are being completed, with profile sheets being sent to

Interpol and governments of the nationalities concerned. Opportunities for extra-territorial

laws may be instigated by their respected governments for further investigation,

with possible charges being laid."

The same procedure was used for the investigation and arrests by Cambodian Interpol

of Frenchman Amadee Hennion and Canadian-German Alfred Manfred-Cass in April this

year on paedophilia related charges. The two are in jail pending trial.

As for Sokha, she is out of the sex business for now, but it is uncertain whether

her brothel will continue without her.

Sokha, in a conversation with this correspondent last year, explained her operation,

which she said she had been running for five years. She said mothers brought their

girls from Vietnam and stayed three weeks at the brothel while their daughters lost

their virginity, to ensure they didn't run away.

The mothers were "loaned" $500 by Sokha, which was immediately earned by

selling the girls' virginity. The children then kept on working at the premises,

keeping only a small percentage of what they earned, while their mothers returned

to Vietnam or stayed in Cambodia.

A few days after the May 15 arrest of Sokha, four girls were seen back at the brothel

under the supervision of its cook. The brothel later appeared to be have been closed,

but it is unclear if it will remain so.

Though the ECPAT International and police operation was not a complete success, human

right workers point to the fact that the police officers were unaware of the brothel's

impending raid even though the Russey Keo police chief and others were informed several

days previously. They also point to the unrelated rescue of three girls by police

officers in Phnom Penh after attending the four-day training course that culminated

in the raid at Svay Pak.

Mick Kearney has returned to his home of Bangkok, slightly frustrated at the loss

of the other girls but still optimistic.

"There's a lot of little things that are happening, it's starting to go in the

right direction even though the steps that are taken are small. You can't expect

significant changes or action overnight. Although that would be a pleasant thought."

When asked whether, unless there is continued enforcement, the raid will only encourage

further trafficking to replace the four girls who were rescued, he said: "You

can't say that the four girls will be replaced [through Sokha's network], but new

girls will come anyway. But it's still a positive start and that's what makes it

all worthwhile."

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