Shutters were firmly bolted at the once-busy brothels of Cambodia’s most notorious red-light district, Svay Pak, on Thursday—two weeks after police warned that the area’s long-established sex businesses had to shut.
However, the crackdown has not dented the trade in child prostitutes in the small village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
While the hundreds of scantily clad teenage girls who once greeted visitors to Svay Pak were missing on Thursday, teenage pimps were busy touting sex with “young girls” in the shack village behind the main brothel strip, which is now closed. According to one pimp, dozens of young girls were available in the nearby warren of wooden houses, and several foreign men were seen being led away and later emerging from the dusty side streets.
Local officials and health workers say that some of the hundreds of adult prostitutes who once worked in Svay Pak have returned to their homes in Vietnam.
But many have either moved to massage parlors in Phnom Penh or to provincial sex trade centers such as Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
“[Svay Pak] has been closed for two weeks. I informed the local authorities down there, who are involved with brothels, and threatened them with administration measures,” Russei Keo district Police Chief Ly Lay said Thursday:
“We arrested many girls and a few of them were sent to the rehabilitation center. Forty were returned to their families with a contract not to return to the brothels,” Ly Lay said.
Some brothel owners were arrested, Ly Lay said.
The order to shutter Svay Pak’s more than a dozen concrete shop-front brothels was made by Municipal Police Chief Suon Chheangly, Ly Lay said.
“I am committed to making these brothels disappear,” he said, adding that at one time around 1,000 prostitutes were working in the village. That figure had reduced recently to around 200, he said.
“Officials cracked down on the older girls who were staying in the brothels with the owners. But they could not stop the underage girls who are hanging around outside the houses,” Svay Pak village chief Pen Sarun said Thursday.
Most of the 250 prostitutes who worked in the 14 major brothels have moved on to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. But some 20 to 25 girls, under 16 years old, are still operating in the nearby village, said Pen Sarun, adding that most are given drugs by their pimps.
“We have arrested young girls. But then there is a lack of evidence and they return them,” Pen Sarun said.
“This is a ripe time to close this place because the number of underage prostitutes and drug users are on the rise,” he said.
Minister of Women Affairs Mu Sochua said Thursday that her ministry was not involved with the brothel closures and expressed concern at reports that the child sex trade was still in operation.
“The actions of the police at least shows a commitment, and that they are as concerned as we are about this very serious situation,” Mu Sochua said.
“But it’s not as simple as closing down…. We need a coordinated effort,” Mu Sochua said, adding that health and rehabilitation programs need to be made available to adult sex workers and serious investigations implemented to root out the child sex business.
A staff member with local NGO Khemara—which operates a clinic in Svay Pak to educate prostitutes about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases—said the closure dispersed the older girls but has not decreased the child sex workers.
The health worker, who declined to be named, said the older prostitutes could now end up in other brothels where condoms are not used and there is no access to health facilities.
Operating since the early 1990s, Svay Pak has become a magnet drawing foreign sex tourists and pedophiles from all over the world.
Government officials recently were shocked by the discovery of a Svay Pak Web site with a street map and detailed guide to the area’s brothels.