Longtime residents of Phnom Penh’s once-notorious Svay Pak neighborhood say an NGO facing imminent closure on orders from Prime Minister Hun Sen was a boon to their small community and they had mixed feelings about its pending demise.
On Tuesday, in a blistering speech to graduating law students, the premier accused Agape International Missions (AIM) of falsely claiming, by way of a recent CNN story, that some Cambodian mothers sell their daughters into the sex trade.
Mr. Hun Sen said he had ordered the interior and foreign affairs ministries to waste no time investigating the NGO, shutting it down and kicking it out of the country for its “unforgivable” insult.
But in Svay Pak, where AIM operates a number of community programs that were still running as of on Thursday afternoon, residents had nothing but praise for their neighbor.
The Christian NGO says it made the fight against child sex slavery a focal point of its work in Cambodia in 2005. Within two years it opened a community center in Svay Pak, a poor neighborhood of mostly ethnic Vietnamese once riddled with brothels. It has since added a gym and a garment shop that puts dozens to work, including some of the girls the NGO has helped remove from the sex trade with the aid of a dedicated investigations team.
AIM says it has helped rescue more than 700 people with the help of local police over the past dozen years.
Teang Chin, a laborer who moved to Svay Pak in 1982, said the tightly packed warren of muddy streets used to be teeming with sex for sale, until about the time AIM showed up in the mid-2000s.
“Prostitution was everywhere,” he said while taking a break at a coffee shop. “The NGO played a very important role in shutting the prostitution down.”
And with the brothels came fights and robberies.
“I used to be nervous sometimes because of the gangsters. They came to find prostitutes and they caused trouble,” said Ek Kunthea, who moved here in 1995. “There were a lot of prostitutes. But when AIM arrived, they started to be shut down.”
She said the brothels started closing in 2002 thanks to stepped-up police raids, but really fell away a few years later, around the time AIM showed up.
Of the nearly dozen residents interviewed on Thursday, each had only good things to say about AIM. They said the NGO had helped repair crumbling homes, distributed free medicine and gave them work at the local garment shop. But what they valued most were the classes for the children.
“Every time my kids come home, they know how to read and write, so I think it’s a good school,” said Ms. Kunthea, whose son and daughter have both attended.
Most of those interviewed said they had not heard about the CNN story that so raised the prime minister’s ire, or his televised tirade.
What seems to have piqued the government’s anger most was the CNN report’s claim, quickly corrected, that the three girls featured in the story were Cambodian. The government insists the girls, and the mothers who sold them into the sex trade, were Vietnamese.
The headline to the story referred to “Cambodian girls” when it first ran on July 24, but CNN removed “Cambodian” by the next day. In a clarification, the network said it made the change “to more accurately reflect the content of the piece, which refers to girls of Vietnamese descent who were victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia.” Neither the story itself, nor a short video accompanying it, ever repeated the claim that the girls were Cambodian. AIM staff quoted by CNN made no reference to their ethnicity at all.
The government has also taken issue with the report’s claim that prostitution remained a problem in Svay Pak. It claims the sex trade has been driven out of the neighborhood completely.
In the CNN story, AIM praises the authorities for helping it significantly stem the local sex trade, but says it still lingers. Don Brewster, the NGO’s founder, is quoted as saying that when AIM arrived in Svay Pak, just about every girl in the neighborhood was in the sex trade, but adding that today “it’s significantly below 50 percent.”
Svay Pak locals sided with the government, insisting that prostitution of any kind was a thing of the past. They all agreed that accusing mothers of selling their daughters was a serious insult. But they were split about what to do about it.
Some said they had no strong feelings about whether to shut AIM down and thought the neighborhood would be none the worse for its loss.
Mr. Chin said he was grateful for the Khmer and English classes his 10-year-old son was getting from AIM and would struggle to get him into another school because he had no birth certificate. But he said the slight would be too much to bear if it turned out that mothers were in fact not selling their daughters for sex.
“If they investigate and find it is fake, they should shut them down,” he said. “If they don’t find anything, they should not shut it down.”
Others said the neighborhood would suffer if AIM were shuttered and that it deserved to stay.
“I would feel bad for the kids because they would have no school since some of them are poor,” fish vendor Ly Cheav said. “It’s better not to get shut down because there is a school for children and jobs for others.”
“Kids would have no place to play. There would be no place to study,” said Sung Srey Thy, whose niece and nephew enjoy their classes. “If they keep the NGO open, that’s good.”
AIM staff in the neighborhood said they had no idea if they were going to be shut down. Mr. Brewster, the founder, has declined to comment.
Officials at the interior and foreign affairs ministries could not be reached on Thursday for comment. On Wednesday, Chou Bun Eng, the vice chair of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, said the investigation was ongoing.