The US blames the government. The government blames a lack of human resources and funding. And the Chai Hour II Hotel suspects a business conspiracy aimed at making trouble for its large-scale karaoke and massage enterprise.
These were the responses to Friday’s announcement that Cambodia could face sanctions after being downgraded on the US State Department’s global anti-trafficking watchdog list following the government’s handling of the Afesip case.
Sanctions could be imposed as soon as Oct 1, or, alternatively, the US said Cambodia could be upgraded and avoid sanctions, though no public announcement has yet been made about what measures Cambodia will have to take to achieve that end.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith on Monday criticized the US for paying too much attention to Afesip’s account of what happened during the Dec 7 raid on the Chai Hour II Hotel and the subsequent raid on the NGO’s women’s shelter.
“The [US] State Department should have conducted a more serious investigation,” before downgrading Cambodia, Khieu Kanharith said.
The US “must know that if you need to fight human trafficking…we need more lawyers and training for police,” Khieu Kanharith added.
“How much funding do we get from the US?” he asked. “We get [funding] for combating drugs, for AIDS, but not for human trafficking.”
The US Embassy declined comment, but Mu Sochua, former women’s affairs minister and now opposition party member, said the US donates millions of dollars each year to combat trafficking in Cambodia via organizations such as International Justice Mission and the International Organization for Migration.
In an email received Sunday, Opposition leader Sam Rainsy dubbed Cambodia’s expressions of commitment to combat human trafficking “lip service to fool donor countries into giving more aid.”
High ranking government officials, including police, have “personal interests” in running brothels, he said.
On Dec 7, police and the anti-trafficking NGO Afesip raided the Chai Hour II, removing 83 women and girls. On Dec 8, 91 women and girls were removed from the NGO’s care after some 30 men forced open the gate. Eight suspects from the hotel were arrested in connection with the hotel raid but released shortly after on the orders of an unidentified senior government official.
“Senior Cambodian government officials and their family members are reportedly involved in or profit from trafficking activities, but there were no trafficking-related prosecutions of corrupt officials,” the US State Department said in its latest anti-trafficking report.
Kim Song, who identifies himself as the Chai Hour II Hotel’s accountant, said on Sunday he was baffled by the fuss.
“We wondered why [the Dec 7 raid] happened,” he said. “We thought that businessmen are always being attacked.”
The US State Department on Friday dubbed Afesip founders Somaly Mam and Pierre Legros “heroes acting to end modern day slavery.”
Om Yentieng, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s adviser, welcomed news of the accolades on Monday.
The pair “are not enemies” of the government, Om Yentieng said. The accolades are “suitable,” he said, adding that the pair “have already helped the police a lot.”
But some critics say Afesip’s handling of the hotel raid was unprofessional.
Although it was technically a police raid, video footage shows that Afesip dominated the proceedings, while police and a court official played comparatively minor roles.
A French television crew was allowed to film the event, and Somaly Mam spoke with the cameramen as alleged underage prostitutes cowered on the floor and concealed their faces. Trafficking suspects who were later released were also filmed. The females, many of who were not underage, were then put into a tightly packed truck and driven away. Whilst on the truck, some of the women and girls could be heard screaming, according to the footage.
The next day, when men came to force open the shelter’s gate, some females—apparently unhappy with their detention—helped force it open from the inside before fleeing on motorbike taxis, witnesses said.
The Afesip case may serve as a lesson to all NGOs “that to keep anybody against their will is against their basic human rights,” Chea Vannath of the Center for Social Development said Monday.
But how the raid was handled should not distract attention from the lawlessness that was exposed in the aftermath, Afesip officials said.
“My personal view is that the reason it turned into such a mess was that the police and Afesip were doing their job, and hit a sore nerve,” Afesip legal adviser Aarti Kapoor said on Monday.
Any action proposed by the US to help Cambodia avoid sanctions is expected to focus on more general trafficking issues, such as strengthening the judiciary, embassy officials said.
Cambodia will need international support and mentoring in the coming months to avoid sanctions, Chea Vannath said.
Organized criminals have the second biggest influence over the government after international investors, she warned.
“It’s not impossible with political will,” to avoid sanctions, she said.
“We need to have confidence and belief,” that Cambodia can meet any requirements in time, she added.