It should have been a moment of triumph for Cambodia.
An alleged large-scale human trafficking operation had been investigated and raided by government authorities, eight suspects had been arrested, and 83 women and girls had been delivered to safety.
The government, it appeared, had demonstrated its will to combat the trafficking and forced prostitution of women and children with the Dec 7 raid on the Chai Hour II Hotel in Phnom Penh conducted by the Interior Ministry’s anti-trafficking police, a court official and the NGO Afesip.
But when the women’s shelter was raided and the females taken away on Dec 8, and the suspects were released on the orders of an unidentified government official, allegations by Afesip of government officials having links to organized crime were hauled into glaring public scrutiny.
Strong condemnations by the US State Department and the European Union were issued amid calls for the government to rescue the alleged sex workers.
But the incident, which occurred just four days after the annual donors’ meeting where international financial institutions and countries pledged $504 million in aid to the country, have led some to ask how effective and how concerned donors really are about concrete reform in Cambodia.
Donors should ask themselves how much effect aid money is having, given that human trafficking and corruption are two of the major issues donors have asked the government to tackle, opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said.
Members of the public in donor countries need to be informed of how their tax money is being spent in Cambodia, as their embassies are failing to ensure it is handled responsibly, Son Chhay said.
“The donors ignore the facts,” Son Chhay said. “The government behaves so badly.”
Though the Interior Ministry’s anti-trafficking police had sanctioned the raid based on information that virgin girls were allegedly being trafficked and 100 females were reportedly confined at the hotel, on Dec 27, Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov briefly questioned eight hotel staff but released them later in the day citing a lack of evidence.
The hotel is now launching a countersuit against Afesip.
Events have shown, said Mu Sochua, former minister of women’s affairs, that human trafficking “brings money into the pockets of high ranking officials [who] would rather protect brothels than the name of the country.”
Although the government is making some efforts to reform, a foreign diplomat said the Afesip case indicates that the government fears that tackling internal criminal elements may destabilize Cambodia’s delicate power structure.
How the government handles the events will be a litmus test of how serious it is about human trafficking and reform, the diplomat said.
“Cambodia has been following the law of the jungle for some time,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “They can’t do these kinds of things anymore. The whole thing will be watched very closely by other countries.”
A dangerous complicity has likely developed between brothels, and government and police officials who protect them, he said.
Criminal factions who are either loyal to, or part of, the government could cause chaos if they were brought to justice, the diplomat said.
On Sept 10 Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a “war on corruption” and vowed judicial and public administration reform. He threatened to bring to court any official who did not change their corrupt activities.
Not everyone inside the government was likely to have welcomed the crackdown, the diplomat said.
“There will be certain elements in the police and military that are resisting change,” the diplomat said. “If they take action against [those involved in the events surrounding the hotel], I’m sure there would be fear that others would have action taken against them, too.”
On Dec 15, Helene Flautre, President of the European Parliament’s subcommission of human rights, issued a letter to Afesip condemning the raid on the women’s shelter. In a statement on Dec 21, EU embassies in Bangkok referred to the donor meeting, recalling government statements about its commitment to good governance and the rule of law.
The EU said it trusted that the government’s interministerial committee investigating the events will investigate the safety of the females taken from the shelter and the release of the suspects arrested during the hotel raid.
However, embassies and NGOs have turned down government invitations to be part of the committee. Some have said that the committee is not independent enough to provide an accurate assessment of what happened, given that a vehicle with a military license plate was reportedly waiting for girls broken out of the Afesip shelter.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a group of 18 NGOs, has chosen to investigate the incident independently but has been given limited access to the women and girls inside the hotel.
Asked about alleged government links to organized crime, Khieu Kanharith said there is no complicity with human traffickers.
“No one wants that,” Khieu Kanharith said. The government will be able to combat human trafficking, although Cambodia is never likely to be a “pagoda society,” he said.
“We can’t succeed 100 percent,” in combating the sex trade, Khieu Kanharith said. “But at least we will intimidate those involved.”
The US is considering downgrading Cambodia’s status on its global human trafficking watchdog list for its handling of the raid on Afesip.
A downgrading could entail US sanctions for Cambodia and would put the country on par with Burma, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan.
Observers gave differing accounts of how such a move might affect Cambodia.
One anti-trafficking expert said the anti-trafficking department has improved significantly in recent years and a downgrading would damage the department’s morale, making it difficult for them to continue their work.
“The police have progressed a lot, and we can’t for one case forget the good work they’ve done,” the anti-trafficking expert said.
If sanctions are applied, it will inevitably be the Cambodian people rather than the government who suffer, Mu Sochua said.
Sanctions would be unlikely to affect senior members of the government, Son Chhay said.
“A few months later I think the donors will forget about it, the people will forget and the government will go on behaving just as badly,” Son Chhay said.