Two weeks ago, a small group of transgender women were sitting on the riverfront in Siem Reap City when a group of police officers arrived and told them to get up and go away. It was an act of blatant discrimination, harassing them for being in a public space, but only routine.
This was just one anecdote from the country’s first major study of transgender women, released by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) on Wednesday.
Others were far worse.
In nearly 10 cases, transgender women—suspected of being sex workers—said they were forced by Siem Reap police to get into the river. The officers wanted to get them soaked, the women said, so they would have no choice but to go home.
In some cases, transgender women said they were forced to wash off their makeup in the river, remove their wigs and undress in public—losing their identity, piece by piece.
The abuse, CCHR’s researchers say, “likely amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and potentially torture, under international human rights law.”
Siem Reap authorities flatly denied the accounts on Wednesday. Sort Nady, the provincial police chief, said officers had never forced transgender women to bathe in the river.
“There was no such case. Our police never did that,” Mr. Nady said.
“This report is a lie,” he said before hanging up on a reporter.
Provincial governor Khim Bunsong, also hanging up the telephone, said, “I’ve never heard of that.”
CCHR’s report, “Discrimination Against Transgender Women in Cambodia’s Urban Centers,” is based on a survey of 135 transgender women in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville.
The responses tell a harrowing story.
Ninety-two percent of respondents said they had been verbally harassed because of their gender identity while walking outside. Two in 5 reported having been physically assaulted in public and nearly 1 in 3 said they had been sexually assaulted.
The study is the first look into the realities faced by transgender people in Cambodia, with the exception of an earlier government census, which estimated that there were 3,030 transgender Cambodians as of 2014.
The number is a starting point, but far from the whole picture—especially considering that about a third of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people remain in the closet, according to CCHR.
Transgender women—who are born with male genitalia, but identify as women—are commonly targeted as their trans identity is typically visible, the study says. This leads to daily harassment and regular abuse from authorities, it says.
“We can’t continue the culture of impunity for perpetrators against transgender women,” said project coordinator Nuon Sidara at the study’s launch in Phnom Penh. “There’s no law to protect them. This is a gap.”
The women face legal troubles at several levels: They are harassed by police, any complaints they make are mostly dismissed and they enjoy no specific legal protections. Compounding these difficulties, 35 percent of respondents said they were sex workers, an occupation to which many are driven, the study says, due to discrimination from their families, employers and landlords.
At the study’s launch on Wednesday, speakers implored greater acceptance for transgender people—particularly among friends and family members. But the discrimination seemed to continue even there.
A radio journalist from Media One, taking the microphone during a question-and-answer session, said of the forced bathing in Siem Reap: “My question is: Is sex work legal or illegal?” He repeated the query several times.
Chhun Vey, a 28-year-old transgender woman, asked politicians to pay attention to the transgender population, and make same-sex marriage and adoption legal.
“My question, then: What year can we have equal rights?” she asked.
After the session, Ms. Vey who sings and performs comedy routines on television under the stage name Seav Longny, said the stories coming out of Siem Reap were devastating. “It’s like the authorities in Siem Reap think we’re not a part of society,” she said.
But with the release of the study, she said, it felt like someone was paying attention to her feelings for the first time, giving a thumbs-up and pointing to her heart.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)