Only days after Prime Minister Hun Sen signed an unprecedented directive shutting down much of the country’s nightlife, a new type of girl started strolling the park across the street from his home, next to the Independence Monument.
They were a bit more elegantly dressed and better coiffed than the rest, but their job was the same. They were former karaoke girls, now forced to work as prostitutes in the park.
“I was much more comfortable at the karaoke parlor, because there the customers didn’t hurt me,” said Prom, 17, shortly before hopping onto the back of a motorbike with two customers who looked to be about her age. “The boss looked after me. Now the customers take me back to their homes. Sometimes they beat me or curse at me.”
Prom’s karaoke parlor has been closed since late November, when the prime minister issued a one-page directive blaming nightlife establishments for drug trafficking and other crimes that damage the social order and “destroy the culture and good traditions of the nation.” The Nov 20 directive ordered the closure of all “bars, nightclubs, discos and karaoke parlors” in the country within three days.
The response has been a breathtaking demonstration of the unquestioned obedience the prime minister can inspire. The vast majority of establishments—more than 1,000 in Phnom Penh alone, many of them legal and licensed—have complied. No police crackdown was required.
“[The girls] just heard the announcement and they ran away,” said Lim Pheng, owner of the Seven Stars Restaurant and Massage on Monivong Blvd, who formerly employed 40 karaoke girls.
Many bars have survived the ban by closing their private rooms, where men sang with, fondled and arranged sexual liaisons with the women, then reopening as massage parlors or restaurants with karaoke machines, both of which are still allowed to operate.
But without the private rooms, business at Seven Stars has decreased 70 percent, and the foreign businessmen and tourists who used to crowd the restaurant have disappeared, Lim Pheng said. Other nearby bars that have remained open reported similar declines in business.
It is too early to tell whether the ban has led to a decrease in crime or prostitution. A review of the government’s AIDS-reduction programs, scheduled for later this month, may give some clues. For now, the only certain result is that an estimated 30,000 karaoke employees have lost their jobs. Where they have gone is anybody’s guess.
“You’ve heard of Tuol Kok and Svay Pak [brothel areas]?” said Lim Pheng, when asked where his girls went. “They don’t have a job now, so where else do they go? Tuol Kok and Svay Pak, and some are beer girls.”
A hostess supervisor at the MegaClub just off Monivong Blvd, which lost 50 girls, said many had gone home to their farming villages in the provinces.
“The hostesses sometimes asked the clients for money to go back home,” the supervisor said. “They go back to do rice farming. They have no money, so I guess they go home and eat grass, like the cows.”
Many former karaoke girls would like to go back home, but must continue sex work to support their families, according to Dy Ratha of the Indradevi Association, a nonprofit group which provides health services for sex workers. She said she had seen new women in each brothel she has visited since the karaoke closures. Some were still cruising for customers at restaurants and bars, she said; others had become waitresses at Kien Svay restaurants.
“Before, they lived at the karaoke parlors,” Dy Ratha said. “Now they must use what little savings they have to find shelter.”
Within the hierarchy of sex work in Cambodia, ending up in a brothel is a “huge demotion,” said Kim Green, Cambodia HIV/AIDS coordinator for the nonprofit group CARE International. Karaoke girls—who depend more on tips or salary than direct payment for sex—typically earn about twice as much as their prostitute counterparts, Green said. They also have more discretion in choosing their sex partners.
As a result, twice as many brothel workers (about 30 percent) are infected with HIV compared to karaoke girls, according to Green. On the other hand, Ministry of Health surveys have shown that karaoke girls are much less likely to use condoms, because they are more likely to trust their sweethearts or regular clients than brothel workers.
Some karaoke girls even gain a bit of cachet because of the popularity of karaoke within the culture, Green said. “Karaoke girls have a little glamour about them,” she said. “They are independent women making money, and some of them dream of saving money and opening their own business.”
It is not clear how many karaoke women have ended up selling sex on the streets. Green believes relatively few women have returned to their farming families. “A lot are just holding on and hoping that attention to the closures will dissipate,” Green said, citing CARE surveys in Koh Kong province.
Studies conducted after forced closures of brothels and bars around the world have found they rarely put a dent in prostitution, said Geoff Manthey, Cambodia director for the UNAIDS program.
“Forced closure just sends women underground and makes them unavailable for prevention and education for HIV,” he said. The long-term solution to prostitution lies in promoting women’s rights and access to education, he said.
Hor Bun Leng, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs, said the closures would have little effect on ongoing government efforts to educate sex workers on safe methods. The safe sex educators will still go everywhere frequented by sex workers, including parks and massage parlors, he said.
“For the time being, [the closure order] is a good way to close down the establishments,” Hor Bun Leng said. “We have seen an increase in the amount of drug use, especially among the youth in nightclubs. This is a good way to curb drug use at this time.”
The closures have not helped Neary and Sopheap, two former karaoke girls who chatted with clients in Independence Park one night last week. (All names of former karaoke girls in this story have been changed.) The arrest of a dozen other prostitutes at the park two nights earlier was not enough to keep them away.
After losing their karaoke jobs, they found a new boss, or mama-san, who put them up in crumbling cement buildings in the Sotheros Blvd squatter areas. Sopheap, 26, used to earn $70 a month plus up to $20 in tips. Now she earns about half that amount.
“The karaoke customers were nicer; we had only a few problems. Now we have more problems,” she said.
When her mother was partially paralyzed by a stroke, Neary, 20, left her Prey Veng province home and came to Phnom Penh in search of a garment worker job. But she said she lacked the money to pay a middleman who could get her a job. So a friend from her village introduced her to a karaoke parlor owner.
She had only been working at the parlor for a month when Hun Sen issued the closure order. She briefly returned home, but could not afford to stay. Now working the park, Neary makes $50 a month.
“Before they closed the club, I only had sex two or three times a week with the clients,” she said. “Now I must sleep with them every night.
“The karaoke clubs had older clients, and they were richer. Here, some of the clients are good, but some are very bad.”