Countless nightclubs and karaoke parlors remain open six months after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the closure of all nightspots, leading many to believe that the premier’s order has fallen by the wayside.
Although authorities across the country said recently they have carried out the premier’s demand to close all nightclubs, discos and karaoke parlors in Cambodia, they admitted that in some places the ban on nightspots never took hold, or that club owners operated the same establishments but changed the name from karaoke parlor to “restaurant” or “beer garden.”
“We still crack down on these clubs every day, but they remain open secretly,” said Battambang police Chief Heng Chanta, who added that they closed two nightclubs Tuesday.
“But sometimes when we crack down on a club we find nothing, Sometimes we find only one microphone. They are good at hiding equipment.”
And the ban appears to have done little to slow Cambodia’s sex trade, which flourished in karaoke rooms and discos.
“Closing the karaoke may have done something…. But one action alone cannot prevent this big business of trafficking,” said Kek Galabru, founder of the human rights group Licadho, who said the government also needs to push anti-trafficking education.
Hun Sen shuttered all karaoke parlors and nightclubs in late November, claiming that, “many offensive acts have occurred from nightclubs, pubs, discotheques and karaoke parlors [such as] drug trading, which cause disorder and destroy culture.”
After the prime minister’s order, authorities across the country abruptly shut down Cambodia’s nightlife. In Phnom Penh alone the government closed 1,053 nighttime establishments in seven districts, leaving an estimated 4,228 employees facing potential unemployment.
Minister of Women’s and Veterans’ Affairs Mu Sochua, a strong critic of the effect a karaoke ban might have on the women working Cambodia’s nightspots, said the country needs a less immediate solution to ending social ills rather than a sudden ban on certain clubs.
“It looks like for this policy, or any policy, to work, you need a long-term solution, not a reactionary solution,” Mu Sochua said. “The businesses we are talking about provide economic survival for people who have no other options for employment.”
In Siem Reap town and other provincial cities, however, club owners simply changed the name of their establishments from “karaoke parlor” to “restaurant” or “massage parlor” and remained open. This trend eventually caught on in Phnom Penh as well.
“The situation is the same exactly as it was before the ban on karaoke clubs,” said Sentot Sutrisnadi, the former manager of the Sharaton Cambodia Hotel in Phnom Penh.
The Casa nightclub, a disco with private karaoke rooms attached to the Sharaton Hotel, was one of the most highly visible nightspots temporarily shut down in November.
It has since reopened with “business as usual,” Sutrisnadi said, as has the Manhattan nightclub at the Holiday Hotel, which was singled out by city authorities for its violent fights and actually closed a week before the ban took effect.
The Ministry of Interior, however, said the ban on nightclubs has not been repealed.
“We don’t have any new instructions from the prime minister, which means that the ban on karaoke parlors is still in effect,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
“We do not allow these clubs to be open, and we take action when we see a club open.”
But Khieu Sopheak conceded that some of the large nightclubs like Manhattan or Casa are still operating, though they are doing so “secretly.”
(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)