Anti-sex-trafficking Law Causes Police Violence in Cambodia

Cambodia is one of the countries the US has manipulated into passing anti-trafficking legislation.

I write about this because there is a mass blindness going on, like the phenomenon of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where everyone knew he was naked but no one said so. There is now enough evidence – maybe even acceptable in a court of law! – that anti-trafficking laws cause more violence and injustice than they prevent. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way, perhaps there could be good anti-trafficking laws that did not end up punishing loads of people who don’t want to be ‘helped’ or ‘rescued’ in the way the US and other mainstream government voices are now requiring.  Everyone wants to help real victims, that isn’t at issue.

At the moment, the USA publishes an annual ranking -a report card – for the Rest of the World, on how well they combat human trafficking. Why does the US government get to do this? Do they know more than anyone else? No. This is political manoeuvering and cultural crusading. The moralistic claim is that US efforts and money are needed in order to save the world from slavery. One important question is how do they know where their efforts and money are needed.

The Trafficking in Persons (known as TIP) reports do not explain what methods they use to evaluate the extent of trafficking in any given place. They use CIA estimates – that’s the Central Intelligence Agency, which is not well known for doing good research – and anecdotal evidence to decide whether a country should get a good grade or a bad one. Anecdotal evidence means whatever their local contacts said, when asked in a conversation or telephone call.

-Hello, CIA and US Embassy here. Is that the local police? It is? Good. Listen, we’re doing research on how much sex trafficking there is in your area. You know, sex trafficking, like when pimps force women and children into being prostitutes against their will.

-Hello, CIA and US Embassy. Of course we want to help you in any way we can. What do you want to know?

-How much sex trafficking have you got around there? Is it bad? Is it increasing? Are there children involved?

-Oh yes, it’s very bad, there are prostitutes everywhere. Lots of them are very young. They stand around in the streets wearing skimpy clothes, there are brothels everywhere, they are shameless.

-So it’s really bad, right? And getting worse?

-Definitely. We can’t keep track of it, it’s so bad. There are children everywhere. Just the other day my aunt told me she was seeing young people in her own street! Not only that, but they were boys dressing like girls!

-We’ll report this right now. There will be a new law, you’ll see, that makes it a very bad crime to traffic anyone. The police will be charged with ending this vile trade. That will fix the problem. Talk to you soon.

-Okay, boss, let us know when it’s ready.

-Right. Secretary, record that one as 100% more cases of trafficking this year than last year and numbers of small children being exploited up 50%. That’s us done, send it to Washington. 

Was that single conversation the only source of evidence? No. But what if there are several, or even numerous such conversations? Do we understand these to be ‘proof’ of anything? Come on, no!

High up on the factors that give countries a good grade is their anti-trafficking legislation: to get a good mark, countries must have a Strong Law.  Countries that don’t buckle under to US pressure face the possibility of receiving less US aid and support. Cambodia’s law is a mess: take a look at it and see if you can make sense of it. The result is mass police actions to round up people who sell sex (whether they call themselves sex workers or prostitutes) , in the name of rescuing them from exploitation.

This is not a struggle between Good and Evil, or about whether prostitution is good or bad. We all agree that people who are in horrible situations should be helped. The issue is how you help them, and you cannot do it without understanding what they themselves want. It’s hard to understand why this fundamental point should be so difficult to take in. Another recent case in Cambodia illustrates what happens when the police start shooing people to new areas.

Some people prefer selling sex to their other options, even if those options are limited and unappealing. Give folks a break, let them judge for themselves which option they would rather engage in at the moment! Here’s the latest news on the failure of the other approach, which can be called Unwanted Rescues. Don’t forget the poster migrants made about that in Thailand! It isn’t necessary to arrive at a single piece of legislation that applies to everyone: there could be two, or even three! Radical.

New Sex Law Brings Problems

The Straits Times, 26 December 2008

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Chantha said there was nothing else she could do in Cambodia but become a prostitute.

“If you don’t even have a dollar in your pocket to buy rice, how can you bear looking at your starving relatives?” she said.

“You do whatever to survive, until you start to realize the consequence of your deeds.”

Chanta, in her early twenties, was working in a small red-light district west of the capital Phnom Penh several months ago when she was arrested under Cambodia’s new sex-trafficking law.

Police nabbed her in a raid and charged her with publicly soliciting sex, fining her nearly two dollars. Then, Chanta claims, the arresting officers gang raped and beat her for six days in detention.

Bruises covered her body, but none of her assailants were brought to court, she said.

The Cambodian government began prosecuting a new “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” in February after years of pressure from the United States to clamp down on sex trafficking.

Since then, authorities have conducted brothel raids and street sweeps, but rights groups complain the new law has in many ways worsened the exploitation of women.

“The law allows police of all levels to arrest and punish sex workers,” said Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group Licadho.

“The sex workers are arrested to police stations and rehabilitation centres and then they are abused.”

More than 500 women were arrested for soliciting sex in the first nine months of 2008, according to anti-trafficking organisation Afesip, with many of them forced into rehabilitation centres.

Rights groups say the new law makes women easier prey for traffickers, and could increase rates of sexually-transmitted infections as prostitutes stop carrying condoms out of fear they will be used as evidence against them.

They also allege that detainees are regularly abused at the two rehabilitation centres controlled by Cambodia’s ministry of social affairs, Prey Speu and Koh Kor.

Koh Kor has the added grim reputation of being on an island which was the site of a prison and execution camp under Cambodia’s murderous 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime.

Despite Chanta and others testifying to instances of rape, beatings and extortion at the hands of police in the rehabilitation centres, authorities have repeatedly denied the abuses.

Major General Bith Kimhong, director of the interior ministry’s anti-trafficking department, said he does not believe anyone has been abused under the new law because he has received no complaints from victims.

More than 100 people were arrested this year, as human trafficking prosecutions increased by 50 percent, Bith Kimhong said.

The raids on brothels and streetwalkers proved a commitment by the government to end sex trafficking, he said, vowing they would continue.

“We’ll continue to cooperate with local authorities to enforce the law,” Bith Kimhong said.

The new law is one of several moves by the Cambodian government over the past year to show that it is cracking down on sexual exploitation.

In March it imposed ban on foreign marriages amid concerns of an explosion in the number of brokered unions involving South Korean men and poor Cambodian women, many of whom were allegedly being set up for sex slavery.

There have also been a string of arrests of alleged foreign paedophiles, as Cambodia seeks to demonstrate sex tourists are not welcome.

Pich Socheata, deputy governor of one Phnom Penh district, leads “clean-ups” of prostitution on the streets but said she empathizes with sex workers.

“They are female and I am too, so I do understand no girls want to do that job. But we are only practising law,” she said.

But Keo Tha, a staff member at sex workers’ rights group the Women’s Network for Unity, says many more Cambodian women are still being forced into prostitution as jobs dry up amid the global financial crisis.

A more sensible law, she said, would legalise prostitution.

“We are sandwiched right now — we are oppressed by the police, the law and rising living costs,” she said.

6 thoughts on “Anti-sex-trafficking Law Causes Police Violence in Cambodia

  1. Ted Cheng

    I totally agree with your arguement. However, TIP report is also a double-edged. For instance, at the end of the year 2005, in Taiwan there was a huge violent protest/strike of migrant factory workers against their owner in order to improve their army-prison like living condition of the dormitory. the protest aroused a huge attention from the public, and thus, the 2006 TIP report placed Taiwan as Tier 2 watch list and required Taiwan authorities to implement a comprehensive anti-trafficking plan. So the TIP report became a good weapon for NGOs working on migrant spouses’ and workers’ rights as well as the rights of victims, because in the past, Taiwan’s government only focuses more on smugglers and sexual exploitation (especiall child and online sex trade informationand so-called fraudelunt brides as sex workers) rather than victims rights and migrants rtights. Under such a pressure, local NGOs did have more power to ask the authorities, and the authorities did propose an action plan and invite NGOs to discuss about anti-human trafficking legislations and migrant policies. There were some improvement of victim protections and migrant rights(however, comparatively quite few). Unfortunately, as you know, the report only focuses on victim protection, sexual exploitation, and severe forms(ie., bodily abuse) of trafficking. i mean, the report is not radical enough to ask the citizen rights of migrants, but only limited to the exploitation of migrant and crime prosecution and victim protection; it did not criticize the local government of its improper migrant polices as the source of human trafficking/the legal human trafficking. Thus, while the Taiwan authorities proposed the action plan and thus Taiwan was elevated to Tier 2 in 2007 TIP, the working rights of migrant spouses and migrant workers, especially domestic migrant workers, were improved little in these two years, regardless of the proposal before. In brieif, to certain issues such asvictim rights, migrant worker’s rights and migrant spouses’ rights, TIP report did bring a pressure to the local government; however, the key problem and violence of it is its selective comments–its limit of morality/sexuality and the legal control of migrants.

  2. laura agustin Post author

    Hello Ted
    While it’s good to hear that a bad piece of legislation can sometimes be useful to activists, I don’t think it’s enough of an argument to justify the bad legislation. The lesson is to figure out how to bring the pressure without having to rely on a lousy imperialist law. The bad effects of the TIP well outweigh the good, so far.

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