Prime Minister Issues Reprieve to AIM After Founder’s Apology

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday agreed to allow Agape International Missions to continue its operations in Cambodia, just three weeks after ordering the expulsion of the anti-sex trafficking NGO over a CNN story featuring its work, according to an online news report.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced the reprieve on Monday evening, hours after the head of the NGO offered an apology, a defense of the prime minister and criticism of the head of a journalist group.

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Don Brewster, CEO of anti-sex trafficking NGO Agape International Missions (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Government-aligned Fresh News was the first to post the news on its website. Don Brewster, AIM’s CEO, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Brewster had used a news conference to express his “heartfelt apology” for any offense the CNN report about child sex tourism had caused in Cambodia, specifically by initially identifying the girls in the CNN report as Cambodian, but he denied he was the source of the information.

“CNN identified the three girls as Cambodian when in fact they are ethnically Vietnamese. This misidentification was made even though I told CNN the girls were Vietnamese,” he said.

However, Mr. Brewster also conceded, at the end of the conference, that the girls, while ethnically Vietnamese, held Cambodian identification cards. CNN declined to comment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen demanded earlier this month that AIM be investigated and shut over the CNN story that he said falsely reported that Phnom Penh’s Svay Pak neighborhood, once notorious for child sex tourism and the focus of AIM’s work, continued to be a hotbed for child sex crimes.

CNN’s initial headline, “Life after trafficking: The Cambodian girls sold for sex by their mothers,” was updated the following day and “Cambodian” was removed, which AIM said was at its request. The network said the change was made “to more accurately reflect the content of the piece, which refers to girls of Vietnamese descent.”

Asked on Monday whether he thought Mr. Hun Sen’s call to close the NGO he founded in 1988 was fair, Mr. Brewster said it was “a fine process.”

“In this particular case, I think the prime minister quickly stood to protect the reputation of Cambodian mothers and called for an investigation, and…I think it was a fine process,” he said.

“He stood for Cambodian women but wanted a fair investigation,” he said.

Mr. Brewster’s only criticism was for Huy Vannak, director of the government-aligned Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, who wrote a letter critical of AIM “to the government and to CNN and to me.”

Mr. Vannak said Mr. Brewster’s apology was insincere.

“We learn that AIM has not shown its sincere apology to Cambodian mothers, girls and the people,” he said in a message on Monday. “We cannot tolerate any fundraising activities for tiny projects which cost Cambodian international image and the people’s dignity.”

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