Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday ordered the speedy investigation, closure and expulsion of an anti-sex trafficking NGO over a recent CNN story featuring its work, accusing the group of inflicting Cambodia with “a serious insult” for saying that some mothers sell their daughters into the trade.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony for law students in Phnom Penh, the prime minister also lambasted CNN for running the story and urged the U.S. Embassy to do its own investigation of Agape International Mission (AIM), which does most of its field work in Cambodia but runs an office out of California.
“I cannot accept the broadcast about an NGO as presented by CNN and probably ABC, saying that the mothers sell their daughters into prostitution. This is a serious insult,” he said. “I ordered the ministries of interior and foreign affairs to investigate it and they should shut this NGO down. You cannot be allowed to insult my people.”
Mr. Hun Sen warned foreign NGOs not to use Cambodia to raise donations and the U.S. Embassy not to “make more trouble,” adding that he could allow demonstrations against AIM and the embassy if he wished, but would not do so.
“A foreign NGO that uses Cambodia to seek donations and look down on Cambodia very badly is not only unacceptable but also unforgivable,” he said. “Whatever the cost, this organization must leave Cambodia and is no longer allowed to stay.”
He said the government would take charge of any children currently in the NGO’s care, and took a final stab at CNN by way of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly labeled the network “fake news.”
“CNN deserves the rantings of President Donald Trump,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “His rantings are right. I would like to send a message to the president that your attack on CNN is right. American media is very bad.”
The prime minister’s diatribe followed the Interior Ministry’s announcement on Friday that AIM was under investigation for its remarks in a story CNN ran earlier in the week titled “Life after trafficking: The Cambodian girls sold for sex by their mothers.” The word “Cambodian” was later removed.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Tuesday that he was not aware of the case and officials at the ministry’s anti-human trafficking office, which is heading the investigation, could not be reached. A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry could not be reached either.
AIM founder Don Brewster, who was quoted in the CNN story, did not answer his telephone and would not discuss the situation via text message. Asked if he or any other AIM staff were being detained, or whether the NGO was being shut down, he declined to comment.
AIM’s director of investigations, Eric Meldrum, also quoted in the story, did not reply to requests for comment by text or email.
Asked for comment, the U.S. Embassy did not directly address Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks about either the embassy or his orders to have AIM shuttered and kicked out.
Spokesman Arend Zwartjes commended Cambodia for its successes combating child sex trafficking and said the U.S. government was proud of its contributions to the cause.
“However, challenges remain,” he said. “We believe that committed NGOs, working closely with the government and the international community, are a very important part of the solution.”
CNN did not respond to a request for comment about the prime minister’s remarks.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the network said CNN stood by its reporting and emphasized that the story focused on the progress made since 2013, when it aired a one-hour documentary about Svay Pak. The government insists that the neighborhood, once notorious for child prostitution, was cleaned up years ago.
In a statement on Thursday, the head of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, Huy Vannak, rebuked AIM and CNN for the story which he said portrayed Svay Pak as a hotbed of child prostitution still today. Mr. Vannak, an Interior Ministry official who also runs the news operations of a pair of Cambodian TV networks, also insisted that the three girls featured in the CNN story, who speak both Khmer and Vietnamese in an accompanying video, were not Cambodian.
In a statement of its own on Tuesday, the Women’s Affairs Ministry echoed Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks and said that authorities, after studying the video, concluded that the girls and their mothers “are foreigners who live in Cambodia, whose culture and traditions are different.”
The original headline of the story identified the girls as Cambodian, but was soon changed. Neither the story nor the video repeat the claim. The story also describes Svay Pak as a community of mostly undocumented Vietnamese migrants. It quotes Mr. Brewster describing Svay Pak as an epicenter of child sex trafficking “at one point” that has seen the trade subside significantly, but not vanish.
The story also quotes Mr. Meldrum commending the local police but adding that child trafficking persists.
Speaking with the Daily on Tuesday, James McCabe, director of operations for the Child Protection Unit, a police operation supported by the Cambodian Children’s Foundation, said he had not seen a case of a Cambodian mother selling her daughter since the unit started work in mid-2013.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re not aware of that situation at all,” he said.
Samleang Seila, country director of Action Pour Les Enfants, said his NGO had never confirmed such a case either, but would not say it has never happened.
A 2015 study by the International Justice Mission, a U.S. Christian NGO, found a major drop in underage prostitution in Cambodia over the previous three years, but noted that much of the trade that remained had been driven deeper into the shadows, from brothels to front operations such as massage parlors and coffee shops. It does not mention whether the children’s parents were involved.
If few parents do now sell their children into the sex trade, it is not unheard of. In 2015, three Cambodian women were convicted of soliciting child prostitution in Phnom Penh, including a mother found guilty of selling her daughter.
It’s the sort of thing AIM has been fighting against for more than a decade.
After starting out in Cambodia in 1988 as a “humanitarian aid and church planting organization,” the NGO refocused its work in 2005 on “ending the evil of child sexual slavery,” according to its website. It has since opened shelters and community centers to help rehabilitate victims and a job site to find them work in the garment industry.
In his interview with CNN, Mr. Brewster said AIM had rescued more than 700 people over the past dozen years.
If the NGO does get shut down and kicked out, it would not be the first.
In 2011, the government indefinitely suspended housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) for allegedly inciting families at risk of losing land and homes to a railway project to oppose the government’s plans. It resumed operations within a year and is still open. In 2005, the government expelled Global Witness in the wake of a damning report the U.K. NGO had just released linking the prime minister’s family to the country’s illegal timber trade.
STT director Soeung Saran said on Tuesday that he saw few parallels between his NGO’s experience and AIM’s. He said he was unfamiliar with the details of the CNN story or the government’s claims about it, but suggested AIM should have the chance to defend itself before officials decide its fate.
“The government should give that organization the opportunity to clarify before they shut them down,” he said. “They should give them the opportunity to present the evidence.”