In the weeks since the suspicious death of Pen Kunthea, a pall has settled over the small community of sex workers who ply their trade around the capital’s Wat Phnom each night.
For many, Kunthea’s death was not an aberration, but a grim testament to the cruelty and indifference that define relations between Phnom Penh’s sex workers and law enforcement officials.
Struggling to support her polio-afflicted son, Kunthea turned to the sex industry to supplement her income. While working around Wat Phnom on the night of January 1, she and four other sex workers were chased by a group of Daun Penh district security guards.
Jumping between tourist boats docked on the riverside in an attempt to escape, Kunthea slipped, hit her head and fell into the river. The security guards were later accused of having watched her drown and prevented bystanders from rescuing her.
Tomorrow will mark two weeks since the Ministry of Justice ordered an investigation into Kunthea’s case, which sex workers and their advocates say has sent a wave of collective trauma through the community, not least because they believe Kunthea’s experience reflects their own.
Leakena, 35, met Kunthea on the night she died, and was with her when she ran from the security guards. Now, she says, she is wracked with survivor’s guilt.
“I was very sad, and until now I’m still sad,” said Leakena, who described Kunthea as “friendly” and “gentle”. “I am so sorry about losing her, because I was the person who ran away from the security guards with Kunthea, but I’m still alive and … Kunthea is not alive.”
Since the incident, Leakena has been “very afraid”, she said, “but I continue working there because I know I can find clients in that area”.
She added that sex workers like her and Kunthea frequently ran from security guards and police officers to avoid the paying the bribes required to avoid arrest.
“I’ve been working at Wat Phnom since I was 18,” she said. “Luckily I was never arrested, but that’s because I always ran.” Although Leakena is sure her luck will one day run out, she says that she will continue to run.
“I don’t want them to take me to the Prey Speu centre,” she said, referring to the infamous detention facility that serves as a de facto prison for the city’s undesirables.
“I have a family to support and I will continue to struggle and run away again and again.”
One 26-year-old worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while she returned to Wat Phnom after Kunthea’s death, mounting anxieties over her safety prompted her to cut back on her work, impeding her ability to earn a living.
“I still work as a sex worker [around Wat Phnom], even though I know that this place is not safe for me,” she said. “My family is so poor and we need money; I make $10 per day, but after what happened to Pen Kunthea, I only make $5.”
Another 34-year-old sex worker who asked not to be named said that after working for two years in Phnom Penh, including in the vicinity of Wat Phnom, Kunthea’s case made her feel unsafe working on the street. While she wishes she could leave Phnom Penh altogether, she said she wasn’t sure she could support herself outside of the city.
Nonetheless, she no longer meets clients near the riverside where Kunthea drowned.
“Now,” she said, “I work in a karaoke bar near the Sorya mall; I prefer to work inside because it is safer.”
While she didn’t know Kunthea personally, the woman said, the immediate recognition of her situation caused her to “panic”.
“As sex workers, we are the same,” she said. “Why did she have to die like this? What was she doing wrong?”
Meanwhile, Dim Sreyoun, a transgender sex worker from Kandal province, resolved to leave Phnom Penh for good after Kunthea died.
“Now, I only work in Kandal province,” she said. “The Kunthea story brought me much pain.”
“I am still very shocked and afraid; I stay indoors, in my house, and I don’t work in Phnom Penh anymore.”
Sreyoun explained that after surviving a still-uninvestigated gang rape in 2015 and being arrested in November, Kunthea’s death convinced her that her next encounter with the law could end in tragedy.
“The Kunthea case traumatised me and showed me I couldn’t keep working in Phnom Penh,” she said. “If one day the police stop arresting sex workers, if they stop being violent, I will come back to work in Phnom Penh,” she said, struggling to hold back tears.
According to Pech Polet, managing director of the Women’s Network for Unity, an organisation that advocates for the rights of sex workers, these accounts are not unusual, adding that Kunthea’s death had come as a tremendous shock to local sex workers.
Speaking at her office on Tuesday, Polet had just finished meeting with 10 Phnom Penh sex workers. Although Polet and her team held group meetings for sex workers on a monthly basis, they have been meeting with them more frequently since Kunthea’s death.
“When she died, we had a meeting every day the following week,” said Polet. “Women would start crying during those meetings.”
“Now we have to meet with them more often because it’s an ongoing process,” she said, explaining that the meetings can serve as a forum for sex workers to voice their anxieties, as well as a platform to formulate concrete political demands.
“They have some demands that are not yet public.”
According to Polet, the circumstances leading to Kunthea’s death were not exceptional, which is what made it so recognisable – and painful – to other sex workers.
Before Kunthea’s death, says Polet, “our [Women’s Network for Unity] officers always had to help women get released from the rehabilitation or collection centre” on a near-daily basis.
While an anti-drug campaign launched in January tempered the harassment of sex workers by security guards and police officers, Polet said that sex workers have continued to risk arrest and detention. “Just last week,” she said, “we got a call from the chief of Prey Speu, telling us to come pick up 25 women.”
Most of the sex workers interviewed were not aware of the investigation into Kunthea’s death. Some, like Leakena, say it is only a matter of time before another sex worker dies. “I don’t dare say it, but I am afraid this will happen again,” she said.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said this week that only an independent investigation involving neutral observers can bring justice to Kunthea.
“We want an independent investigation with women’s associations and human rights associations,” she said, adding that sex workers and other witnesses needed to know their testimony would not expose them to reprisals. “All the witnesses must be provided with physical protection.”
Ros Sopheap, the executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, says that the example set by Kunthea’s life, as well as her death, should spur the government to adopt more humane policies towards sex workers.
“The government needs to look at the reality of these women’s lives,” she said. “They need to consider Kunthea as a role model, taking care of her family; they should understand and respect her.”