Despite the government’s recent closure of hundreds of brothels nationwide as part of a reinvigorated anti-human trafficking campaign, at least one pocket of long-established brothels in Phnom Penh has been revived.
Though brothel closures are somewhat of a cyclical event in Cambodia, the crackdown earlier this year appeared to have the added weight of the new anti-human trafficking law behind it, which declares the public solicitation of sex in any form to be illegal. Over the first half of 2008, NGOs documented hundreds of brothel closures affecting numerous sex workers, many of whom were arrested.
But at least two brothel owners near Stung Meanchey Bridge in Tuol Kok district—an area long known for its under-the-radar sex industry—said Sunday evening that they were able to reach agreements with local police about a week ago by which they have been able to reopen their businesses.
Just after 6 pm Sunday, dozens of sex workers lingered expectantly in the doorways of several small establishments clustered where the road bends just after the Stung Meanchey Bridge.
Brothel owners hovered as clients came and went.
Thoeung Nguc, a 63-year-old Vietnamese woman who has been living in Boeung Salang commune since 1989, is one such brothel owner.
She said Sunday evening that in April, local officials shut down her small operation—which operates out of a wooden house labeled simply “Café”—but that one week ago, she was able to negotiate her re-opening.
The deal she struck with police consisted of registering the number of girls who would be working under her roof—officially, two—and paying $100 up front, to be supplemented by $30 monthly payments.
Thoeung Nguc said she was more afraid during the approximately four months when her brothel was closed than she is now that it’s open again.
“I am not scared because I know the local police here,” she said. “I was afraid when I did not operate a brothel because…my family depended on this business.”
Business has been slow this past week, though prior to April she said she was making about $25 a day. The cost of individual transactions varies, she said, as does her cut of the revenue from each.
“It is according to the beauty of the girl,” she said, adding that a plain girl might charge $1.50, of which the girl keeps a $1, while more attractive girls charge $2.50, keeping $1.50 for themselves.
Another “cafe” owner across the street said Sunday that she paid local police $200 last Monday to reach an agreement by which she has been able to offer the usual sexual services at her establishment over the past week.
A few meters down the street, Sina, a 19-year-old sex worker, sat in the near dark on a wooden platform in front of an unmarked house while she finished a plate of fried noodles.
She said she has been working for the past month at this establishment with seven or eight other prostitutes but doesn’t know how much money she has made in total.
“I can’t remember because when I get money, I spend it for eating,” she said, adding that, in general, girls in the area do quite well financially.
Sina hadn’t had any clients yet on Sunday, but said that as a general rule, she charges $10.
You Nguy, Boeung Salang commune police chief, said it is illegal to operate brothels and denied accusations that police had accepted payments to look the other way.
“We do not allow them to open brothels,” he said.
“We allow only cafes and karaoke shops to open, and we don’t get a riel in bribes from them,” he said, though he added that some shops might operate covert sex businesses after hours.
“I will close down houses found to be operating sexual services,” he added Sunday.
Tuol Kok Deputy District Governor Sum Rithy said he has become aware of seven brothels operating out of houses near Stung Meanchey Bridge.
“We don’t allow them to open brothels there, and I will lead a mixed force of police and military police to close them down,” he said.