Rey lives in Phnom Penh, studies at Norton University, drives a Honda Wave motorbike and likes to wear fashionable clothes. To all the world, Rey is a typical, 21-year-old middle-class Cambodian youth, though he’s a little stockier in build than most. In his free time, Rey likes hanging around with his friends.
But there is nothing he enjoys more than gang-raping prostitutes—a shocking new phenomenon that is apparently on the rise in Phnom Penh.
“One girl, six boys, with no wife, it is OK,” said Rey, in a chilling, matter-of-fact voice, during a recent conversation at his school.
Some boys like to hurt the girls they gang rape, but usually that only happens if they complain, he said.
And with an expression marked more by mirth than malevolence, Rey—who was interviewed in front of several friends—said it all depends on the girl if violence is necessary.
“It depends on what the boys wants. From the night to the morning. Give her nice food and she can continue until the next night again,” Rey said.
Gang rape is common in Phnom Penh and Rey and his friends are not the exception, according to new research that suggests Cambodia’s youth are growing up in a world starkly different from previous generations of Cambodians.
The research, titled “Paupers and Princelings: Youth Attitudes Toward Gangs, Violence, Rape, Drugs and Theft,” paints a grim picture of gangs, drug use, gang rape and young people’s tolerance for violence and impunity by the powerful.
Most disturbing in the survey, conducted by the Gender and Development for Cambodia NGO, is the “common” occurrence of gang rape that targets, but is not strictly limited to, prostitutes.
Asked how popular gang rape is, Rey said, “I’m not sure. But I can say all my friends [do it]… maybe 50 boys.”
But when Rey and his friends trick a prostitute into going to a cheap guest house, where as many as six of his friends are lying in ambush to take part in what can be a 24-hour rape session, they do not call it rape.
Most of the prostitutes know what to expect from young men like himself, and they get paid, said Rey. He explains that the cost for having sex with a prostitute is usually $6. But when pooled between several boys, it is far cheaper.
“Sometimes we are seven, but four or five [boys] stay at the guest house and we just go to get [the prostitute] with two boys,” he said, explaining the tactics employed to lure their victim.
“It’s not rape, because if we take her, she can have money for food and [does] not stay one day without a client,” Rey said.
Poor prostitutes need money, and that need exceeds their fear of being gang-raped with a half-dozen young men, Rey said.
Cambodia’s gang rape problem first came to light last year, somewhat accidentally, during research by the organization Population Services International on condom use and sweetheart relationships in Phnom Penh.
The PSI researchers uncovered the practice known as “bauk”—literally meaning “plus” in Khmer—where up to a dozen youths have sex with the same female, usually a prostitute.
Bauk usually takes place when two young men procure a prostitute or the affection of a young woman and take her to a guest house where their friends, between four and 10 youths, lie in wait or turn up shortly afterward for sex.
The “Paupers and Princelings” research was compiled from surveys taken from 580 youths aged between 13 and 28 years old from 24 communes in Phnom Penh. It contains a disclaimer that the survey is not statistically representative of all people in that age group.
But the results do offer valuable insight into an age range that makes up more than a third of Cambodia’s estimated 12 million people.
“Paupers and Princelings” found that knowledge of bauk among high school and university students was “commonplace,” with 34 percent of male high school students stating they knew others involved in bauk.
Among males that had left school, that figure jumped to almost 50 percent. The highest figure was 60 percent of university students questioned who said that they knew others who engaged in bauk.
The fact that female respondents had little knowledge of bauk suggested that it was a “secretive activity carried out by males,” the research added.
Several questions were also asked of males and females to gauge their feelings on bauk. The results provide several interesting insights, including that only 13 percent of males and 13 percent of the females surveyed accepted that forceful sexual relations of one prostitute with numerous men was, in fact, rape or was wrong.
The most common response—33.4 percent of males and 40.7 percent of females—regarded bauk as dangerous because of the potential transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
Other responses to bauk—12.5 percent of males and 8.1 percent of females—said that gang rape didn’t hurt anyone because the women were prostitutes and see many men anyway.
Taking a more practical approach, 12.7 percent of males and 16.7 percent of females said it was better that it happened to prostitutes than other women.
At the very least, many respondents understand little about the fundamental right of a woman to control her own body, the researchers said.
“The physical act of rape perpetrated by 10 to 20 males on one woman suggests a frightening level of callousness and inability to empathize with others,” they said.
The researchers also found that 73.4 percent of all respondents said they had witnessed a violent assault where the victim deserved to be beaten.
The same young people also displayed a serious lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies and the judicial system, especially if they were in a dispute with a wealthy youth gang member. Almost 60 percent said they would not trust the police to act fairly, while 53 percent said they would not expect the court to be fair either.
Drug use, especially methamphetamines, or yama, was also popular. For high school students, 54 percent said that yama was popular at their school while 37.5 percent of university students said yama was popular at their university.
Society’s relatively black and white rules surrounding the issue of theft also showed speckles of gray in the attitudes of some young people, the research found.
“It seems that a considerable proportion of young people believe that if a poor person steals something, then their actions should be considered to be theft. However, if the thief has money, then somehow his/her actions are not as serious, by virtue of their wealth,” the report stated.
Gender and Development’s Tong Soprach, who coordinated the research project with Luke Bearup, who designed and managed the analysis, said the survey shows the widening generation gap between young people and their parents.
Ask Cambodians over the age of 30 and they won’t even know what bauk is, Tong Soprach said, adding that the slang word for gang rape is common high school vocabulary.
Tong Soprach said his findings are likely to be thought of as controversial in Cambodia, a country where officials regularly lament the loss of cultural values and implement radical decrees to redress the apparent loss of a traditional Khmer identity.
Fearing cultural erosion, government officials have ordered television entertainers to sing more traditional Khmer songs and wear traditional Khmer clothing, while others have lashed out at Thai-style architecture.
The Jan 29 anti-Thai riots proved to many just how volatile the issue of Khmer identity has become.
“I think people will be surprised.… They will not know if their children are [involved] or not,” Tong Soprach said.
Television has opened a new world of fashion, music and relationships, and young Cambodians are growing up in a different world from their parents, Tong Soprach said.
In an increasingly globalized and materialistic society, Cambodia’s parents may be either ill-equipped to help their children navigate its troubled waters or are in positions of power that have made them poor role models for the future, the researchers stated.
“Parents should not assume that they do not need to talk about yama, bauk or gangs with their children. Pretending that problems do not exist will not make them go away,” the research paper states.
“Furthermore, those parents who occupy positions of responsibility within the government, police and military hold an even greater responsibility to set positive examples of behavior for their children to follow,” it added.
Rey, who speaks with a good command of English and is bright and affable, said bauk is not so much about women as it is about male friendship and feeling powerful.
He is also practical about his gang rape days and said that he must pack in as much “fun” as he can before getting married. However, if one is rich and powerful that fun can continue forever.
“For me, Cambodia is a good place. In the USA, we can’t drink in front of the home or break things at a drinks shop. The police will arrest us. Here it is OK. If you have a lot of money you can do anything,” he said.
“This is Cambodia, the law is just on the mouth of the people,” said Rey, who first began taking part in gang rapes three years ago.
Rey’s group includes the sons of high-ranking officials, and he brags that his rich friends have spent up to $2,000 on a single night out. Those fathers make sure their sons’ pockets are never empty. Doting on their sons, they also give them guns, and if things get out of hand, they can be relied on to send their bodyguards, Rey said.
“[In Cambodia] just point around and you get everything your fingers point at,” he adds. “It’s just like a cup of tea. It’s nothing,” he said.
Kep Thmei, a 20-minute drive from Phnom Penh on National Route 1, is a sprawling strip of wooden riverside restaurants-cum-guest houses, replete with shoe-box-sized rooms lining the banks of the Mekong River.
Each evening, and throughout the weekend, hordes of young couples descend on the area. They order food and drinks, but they are mostly there to rent the tiny plywood rooms to have sex.
Rented by the hour or the full night, the partitions can cost as little as 6,000 riel ($1.53), said the owner of one of the better-known guest houses during a recent interview.
The guest house owner, a 35-year-old woman, knows all about bauk. The prostitutes usually don’t protest, and the other girls it happens to are usually high on drugs, she said.
Police in the area have told guest houses to stop renting rooms to gangs of boys who bring only one girl, she said. She complied, but that decision was more to stop general problems with “bong thom,” literally “big brother” but also a common euphemism for gang members, in Kep Thmei than trying to stamp out bauk, she said.
The guest house owner claims that violence is rare during the gang rape sessions, but she admits that resisting a large group of young men is impossible.
She believes that these days, prostitutes are more resigned than surprised to find that several young men are waiting to have sex with them.
“The brothel owners know. All of them know what will happen when they take a girl to the guest house,” she said.
She blames the gang rape problem on drugs and the country’s leadership, especially government officials for setting such a bad example for everyone else.
Her most scathing criticism is directed at a well-known secretary of state, who, she alleged, has for several years taken very young girls—virgins in their early teens—to the area for food and sex. The girls have themselves become prostitutes in turn, she claims.
“The top government officials have money and everyone else is so poor, so they can buy the girls and they lose their virginity,” she said.
“[Those girls] can’t go back home afterward and so they become anarchy people…. Khmer people are losing their culture,” she added.
“There is no human feeling that I can see. Really, think about it. What is behind this?” asks Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua, who is very familiar with the research on bauk, a phenomenon she calls “extremely scary.”
“Look at the age group. These are children who grew up after Pol Pot, so in the past 20 years something happened in society,” she said, adding that this cannot be blamed on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime.
According to Mu Sochua, two decades of neglect in the spheres of education, culture and ethics and the headlong charge by many to accumulate wealth at the expense of others is now resulting in deep social ills in Cambodia.
A dog-eat-dog philosophy in a country without a firm rule of law, has made the obscene—such as gang rape—commonplace and acceptable, said Mu Sochua. She said Cambodia needs new moral leadership.
“When culture is no longer a basis [for behavior], then you must rely on the law. But when there is no law, then gang rape becomes acceptable,” she said.
“We can’t keep blaming the Khmer Rouge, and there is going to be even more if we don’t stop it now,” the minister said, noting that few gang rapists are ever prosecuted by police.
Gang rape is not a new phenomenon, researchers and those involved in the practice say. Reported gang rapes have been growing since 1998 and it is not strictly reserved to prostitutes.
In March 1998, four of nine young men who were arrested for gang-raping two women were the sons of high-ranking government officials and wealthy businessmen.
All were aged between 17 and 20 years old and had abducted the two women on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the women was the wife of a high-ranking government official and the other was her niece, police said at the time.
In February 2000, 17 youths abducted and gang-raped a street vendor on a deserted plot of land opposite the Buddhist Institute. During the woman’s five-hour ordeal, the boys raped and beat her, throwing water on her to revive her when she fell unconscious.
That same month, four boys aged 7, 11, 14 and 16, were arrested for allegedly raping an 11-year-old girl. All the boys attempted to have sex with the girl, but only the 16-year-old was successful, police said.
Rey and his friends usually stick to prostitutes, but he did admit that some boys trick ordinary girls into the practice.
“Most girls in high school want to hang around and walk around at night. So she plays with her boyfriend and after that she goes to the karaoke room. There is another boyfriend there and he can play and give to another,” said Rey.
Gender and Development’s Tong Soprach and Bearup also found a similar trend in interviewing gang members for their research.
“One gangster further described multiple accounts of forming songsar [girlfriend] relationships with girls from other schools and then after several occasions of consensual sex, calling their friends to come and join in against the girls will,” said Bearup, quoting from the research.
Another gang member who identified himself as “Tiger,” talked openly about abducting women at night in Phnom Penh after stopping the motorbike taxis on which they traveled, Bearup added.
The effect of gang rape on victims, in terms of the physical and the mental health consequences, will be borne at the expense of Cambodia’s social and economic development, Mu Sochua said.
In the short-term, Cambodian women are suffering, but in the long term Khmer culture and the whole country will pay, she warned.
With ghostly white-powdered faces and eyebrows shaved into severe arches, Sophon, 22, and Serei Mom, 19, wait for customers below the low-hanging trees in the park opposite Independence Monument, a stone’s throw from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence.
In the shadows of the monument—Cambodia’s foremost symbol of sovereignty—Sophon and Serei Mom work as street-walking prostitutes, the lowest rung of the country’s sex-industry ladder. Both have been ganged raped dozens of times in the past two years, they say.
Waiflike Sophon rolls the left leg of her skin-tight jeans to show off a bloody gash in her knee; she then hoists her orange-colored T-shirt to show a larger oozing wound on her lower back and painful abrasions on her elbows and hands.
They were caused just days before when she jumped from a customer’s motorcycle after she realized she was being shuttled to a gang-rape session.
Sophon said she jumped when she saw several motorcycles carrying three or four young men—she counted at least 12 boys—closing in around her.
Sophon and Serei Mom say “bauk” is just another occupational hazard that can be added to their virtual economic slavery in the sex trade—the risk of HIV/AIDS, police harassment and the everyday vagaries of vicious pimps and customers.
“I had just started to work, so I didn’t understand about their trick,” said Sophon in a businesslike fashion as she recounts how eight boys gang-raped her in a guest house in Kep Thmei. It happened the first week she started working as a prostitute in Phnom Penh in 2001.
After each took his turn, the boys finished off by beating her and stealing her necklace, she said.
Not long after, it also happened to Serei Mom, who was 17 years old at the time.
“They swore, slapped and kicked me. Those boys told me that they had paid the full price and they could do whatever they wanted. That night was so quiet [in Kep Thmei], I was afraid they would kill me and put my body in the river,” Serei Mom said.
“When I screamed, the guest house owner came and told them not to torture me strongly,” she said.
Serei Mon, a shy country girl, said she has been gang-raped more times than she can remember. Asked to estimate, she said around 20 times.
The rules are simple to survive bauk: If you end up at a gang rape session, don’t protest or it will get violent. But there are exceptions to the rule. Some boys are more interested in the violence than the sex, they said.
Rumors that some girls have been killed after being gang-raped are common.
“It has become our habit, and we have to accept it,” Sophon said.
Serei Mom said she has talked with some customers about bauk, and apart from it being cheap for a gang of young men, it is also prized as a part of male bonding.
“When I asked the customer why he always brings a lot of friends, the boy said that he feels very happy when friends have sex together,” she said.
Sophon went quiet when asked about the physical effects of being gang raped, but said it is painful, and, depending on how rough the boys were, usually leaves her feeling nauseated and dizzy.
She is adamant the boys have always used condoms, but later, she said that she is worried that people think she has AIDS because of her frighteningly gaunt appearance.
Sophon cannot weigh more 40 kg, and her face has the hollow-cheeked appearance of those with severe malnutrition or a terminal illness. It seems impossible that she could convince anyone that she is healthy.
Slowly but methodically devouring plates of rice and chicken at a restaurant near the park, both girls complained of being cheated, beaten and sometimes robbed by young men during bauk.
But in a strange twist of logic, neither girl could definitively say they were raped.
“For me, I am here to sell to the man,” said Sophon.
If a group of boys did the same thing to a high school student, then it would be rape, said Serei Mom.
But the same rules do not apply to her, she said. “We are prostitutes, we have a price.”
Originally from Kompong Cham province, the two said they started working the park two years ago. Both said they have a child staying with relatives in the provinces.
Their pimp gave loans to their parents, and their work, hustling for customers from 7 pm to 2 am each night, is for money to pay off that debt.
Sophon said her father bought a motorcycle with her down-payment. He needed the money so he could work as a motorcycle taxi driver and take care of the rest of her family.
“I was not sold by my parents. My parents made no mistake. I volunteered to help my parents, and I had been married already so it wasn’t such a big problem,” Serei Mom said.
Neither harbors blame, but if life were different they said they would prefer to work in a market.
Their biggest regret was not being able to see their children over the Khmer New Year holiday.
“I’m just sad that I missed my daughter for the New Year,” Sophon said.