The bar patron who sidled up to Tun Sopheap on May 7 was not a man looking for sex, as were most who tended to strike up conversation with the 18-year-old prostitute.
He was an employee of the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc, and he was investigating the local sex trade. What Tun Sopheap would tell him a month and-a-half later would lead to the arrest and possible prosecution of one of the biggest brothel owners near the Poipet crossing on Cambodia’s western border with Thailand.
Miet Bunrith, 38, was arrested June 25 in connection with the torture and murder of a prostitute, Adhoc said.
The arrest, rights workers say, represents a major breakthrough for authorities seeking to curb the lucrative, well-protected and illegal sex trafficking business in Banteay Meanchey province.
“If we can arrest this man, we can stop [other] men who run prostitution houses,” said a Phnom Penh-based Adhoc official, who declined to be named.
“This never happens. This is the first time with a very big prostitution house.”
Police in Poipet could not be reached for comment. Governor Duong Khem, reached at his office in Banteay Meanchey, confirmed the police raid and acknowledged that brothel houses are proliferating in the northwest. He claimed that police closed down several other brothels in the area in the last two weeks.
“There are a lot of brothels ope-rating near Poipet but a crackdown cannot accomplish everything in one raid,” Duong Khem said. “It will take a few times to sweep all of the brothels out.”
Adhoc workers estimate that 30 brothels are operating in the Poipet area, five or six of which have more than 20 prostitutes. Poipet is notorious for attracting cross-border sex patrons, rights workers say. It’s also booming with human trafficking for the sex and labor industry in Thailand, they charge.
Rights workers claim that police cannot touch the brothel owners because of protection they receive from powerful authorities. But Duong Khem said that police are stronger than the brothel owners.
Miet Bunrith’s arrest effectively closed down his brothel in Bar Nhiek Ly village near Poipet––despite heavy protection from area authorities––and set free 21 women, rights workers said.
On June 17, Miet Bunrith allegedly beat Neang Thy Pheung, 24, one of his prostitutes, with a piece of wood. She died of injuries to her head, neck and back four days later, rights workers said.
Adhoc workers were alerted to the beating by Tun Sopheap. They had met with her clandestinely when Miet Bunrith’s bodyguards took her and other prostitutes to bars and nightclubs to troll for customers.
A rights worker bribed one of the bodyguards for information that confirmed the story, and heard that Miet Bunrith planned to dispose of the body soon, Adhoc workers said.
Military and local police raided the brothel on June 25, found the body and arrested Miet Bunrith.
The prostitutes, most of whom were sold to the brothel owner by families or lovers, are in the custody of NGOs, the rights workers said. Many of the girls were beaten, they said.
The rights workers also said they had some evidence, which they did not reveal, that members of RCAF Division 12 provided protection to Miet Bunrith and other brothel owners.
Military Region 5 officials said they were unaware of this practice. Duong Khem, too, dismissed suggestions that government soldiers are complicit in protecting the brothel industry.
On June 30, the provincial court decided to hold Miet Bunrith in the provincial prison for investigation of human trafficking, torture and murder, Adhoc workers said. He can be held for up to six months pending an inquiry.
“We encourage the court to prosecute the man as a lesson to other traffickers,” the Adhoc official said.
(Additional reporting by Touch Rotha)