Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday that he is not interested in the fact that the US has downgraded Cambodia on its global anti-trafficking list and could possibly impose sanctions.
“The United States used to drop bombs on Cambodia. I am not interested in [the downgrading],” the premier told reporters outside Chaktomuk Theater.
“The bombs exploded over all provinces and our people suffered,” Hun Sen added. “If the United States considers us good or bad, it is their opinion. Don’t be angry with them.”
The US State Department said Friday that Cambodia has been downgraded to tier three on its anti-trafficking list, citing the government’s handling of the Afesip case and a perception that senior government officials are involved in human trafficking but are not being punished.
The US Embassy declined comment Wednesday, but rights activists said they were disheartened by Hun Sen’s remarks.
The government is risking appearing belligerent toward the international community, said Rodney Hatfield, UN Children’s Fund country representative.
“No country on earth should be involved in trafficking. Any country not doing everything it can to prevent it can expect to be a victim” of actions like the downgrading, Hatfield said.
“Global pressure is increasing,” he added, though he noted Cambodia may not necessarily respond well to a negative incentive. “The stick doesn’t work very well in Cambodia.”
Despite Hun Sen’s remarks, there is a general understanding among government officials that trafficking remains an issue, said Talmage Payne, country director of the Christian NGO World Vision.
“Regardless of how they feel about the US, they are signatories to these basic conventions on human rights,” he said.
One former victim of forced prostitution supported by World Vision said in an interview Wednesday that the government should take trafficking seriously.
The 17-year-old from Kompong Cham province, who asked not to be named, recounted how she was sold to a brothel in Koh Kong province at the age of 14.
She was forced to have sex with three to five men every day and was beaten with electric cables, deprived of food and locked up if she refused.
Over a two-year period of sex slavery she contracted HIV/AIDS before escaping.
After her mother abandoned her, she returned to work as a prostitute in the parks near the National Assembly and Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh residence.
“At first I wanted to die,” she said. “A person like me really needs help…. People who trick women and girls into being sold to brothels should be punished.”
Margaret Eno, project coordinator of M’Lop Tapang, an NGO working with children who have been sexually abused in Sihanoukville, said Hun Sen’s remarks “make you think there is no hope.”
“We urge [Hun Sen] to take trafficking seriously. There are still children going to brothels,” she said. “They can’t push it under the carpet.”
Mu Sochua, former minister of women’s affairs and now an opposition party member, said she was “appalled that Cambodia goes out and asks for aid” but then ignores international concern about human trafficking.
“[Hun Sen] may not be interested, but the Cambodian people are very interested,” she said. “Does it mean that he doesn’t care that women and children are being sold? Does it mean he doesn’t care about the damage to Cambodia’s international image? Does it mean his ‘iron fist’ is not working?”
But there have been some recent improvements in Cambodia’s approach to trafficking, despite the handling of the Afesip case, said Anne Horsley, an anti-trafficking project coordinator with the International Organization for Migration.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is getting better at tracing the families of Cambodian trafficking victims and helping them return from Vietnam and Thailand, she said.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has also been informing district and provincial authorities about the importance of combating trafficking, and arrests made by the Interior Ministry’s anti-trafficking department appear to be increasing, she said.
“I’m not saying this is perfect by any means, but it’s important not to ignore that there is a foundation,” Horsley said.
The US needs to focus on Cambodia’s improvements, Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavy said, adding that the government is willing to combat trafficking.
“I am really sorry that the USA considers the Afesip case a major issue,” she said. “They should understand the country is working hard to enhance judicial reform to find justice for victims.”