The land of heroes
Our heroes
Our land
Cambodia Kingdom

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A plague in paradise

.Sold to a brothel by her family as a toddler, Yorchi Hong Nhea is one of 30,000 sex slaves in Cambodia. Few clients these days are western sex tourists: most are Cambodian men. Three decades after the Khmer Rouge devastated the country, Jon Swain witnesses a surge in violent sexual exploitation.

As dusk falls, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is at its most appealing. It is bathed in a soft and purplish evening light. The air is filled with tropical scents. Lovers stroll along the river bank by the old Royal Palace. The visions of Cambodia at peace after years torn by civil war are enchanting.

But the glitter of dusk over the city hides an ugly reality. For all of its exotic charm, Phnom Penh can be a cruel place. It is a city of terrible sexual exploitation and depravity. Between the Independence Monument and the Mekong lies a municipal park where desperate sex slaves - teenage girls - sit on benches selling their bodies.

The park is named the Jardin de Hun Sen after Cambodia's prime minister, whose house overlooks one side of it. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985 and is the longest-serving leader in Asia. But his government has been incapable of stopping Cambodia's multi-million-pound sex business despite periodic crackdowns by the police, who are underpaid and known for their extortion and corrupt ways.

Gary Glitter, the convicted British paedophile, used to live in a house next door to Hun Sen, paying thousands of pounds in rent for the privilege. He is now serving a three-year prison sentence in Vietnam for sexually abusing girls, after being permanently expelled from Cambodia on suspicion of having done the same there.

But the teenage girls who congregate in the park at dusk are not selling sex to western men. Phnom Penh has become dangerous for western paedophiles to operate in. It is full of campaigning and vigilant NGOs seeking to stop underage sex tourism by westerners. More than 100 people actively monitor child sexual abuse in Phnom Penh, and over the years an increasing number of arrests of paedophiles have taken place. The penalties are harsh. One convicted New Zealander is currently serving 20 years in a Cambodian prison for raping five girls. The girls in the garden are mostly selling themselves to Cambodian men on their way home after work.

There are estimated to be 30,000 sex slaves operating today in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh alone, 8,000 girls are working in the sex industry. There are 124 brothels, 83 massage parlours, 56 karaoke bars. In one establishment there are 300 working girls. Perhaps one in three is HIV-positive. Many have been sold into brothels by their families. Many are in their early teens. Some are as young as five years old. So it is that nearly three decades after the end of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, in which 1.7m people died, Cambodia is gripped by another kind of scourge. It is completely different in kind, of course, but it is ruining thousands of young lives. Cambodia is home to some of Asia's most sordid brothels.

The perception held by many concerned people in the West is that the cause of this big explosion in prostitution is sex tourism by western men, who come to southeast Asia to exploit vulnerable young women and children in a poor, underdeveloped country. In Phnom Penh recently I heard an Australian man describe the city as "PPP heaven" - meaning, as he so eloquently phrased it, "pot, piss and pussy". But the perception that western men are the reason for the existence of Cambodia's legion of sex workers is far removed from the wretched reality of what is happening.

When foreigners are engaged in underage sex, the nationalities are predominantly Asian, but the reason the country is awash with prostitution is primarily to service Cambodian men. With millions struggling to live on less than 25p per day, many women turn out of desperation to jobs in the sex industry, and poor parents sell their children when they are five or six for as little as £50. Girls prostitute themselves for £1 a trick, but at least half of this goes to their pimp or the brothel where they work, so they are left with very little themselves. The brothels are mostly tin-roofed wooden shacks with tiny windowless rooms, furnitureless except for a bed with a soiled mattress, with used condoms and cigarette ends on the floor.

The girls at the Jardin de Hun Sen charge a little extra for operating from a more salubrious part of town. Also considered to be a better class of prostitute, they can command higher fees: they are paid £2.50 for sex. Most of the clients are Cambodians, but there are also men who come to Cambodia from other Asian countries, particularly China, Japan and Korea, for whom the pretty, naive Cambodian country girls are playthings to be enjoyed on holiday or to be bought and taken back to their own countries as brides. It's a multi-million-pound industry.

Nobody knows this hard truth and the extent of this prostitution better than Somaly Mam, a 35-year-old Cambodian woman, energetic, doe-eyed with jet-black hair, who leads Afesip (Action for Women in Distressing Situations), an association that rescues girls and young women from the brothels. Born amid the tumult of war, she does not know who her parents are. She was abandoned and raped when she was 12 and two years later was sold off and forced to marry.

Her husband would get drunk, beat and rape her and fire bullets that passed close by her head and feet. When she was 15 she took his gun and shot him in the foot to hurt him as he had hurt her. He then sold her into a brothel, where she had to accept five or six clients a day. One day a client called her and another girl. He said he was with just one other man. In fact there were 20 of them, who abused the girls terribly. Later she married a Frenchman and had three children. Last year she indirectly became a victim of sex slavery a second time when her daughter Ning, 14, was kidnapped, drugged and raped, possibly out of revenge for her mother's work.

When I met Mam in Phnom Penh she was exhausted, having just returned to the capital from trips to Italy and Singapore to publicise the plight of Cambodian women in the brothels, and a gruelling 10-hour road journey from Pailin, a remote and squalid town in the far west of Cambodia which was once a Khmer Rouge stronghold and is now paradoxically a centre of pornography, prostitutes and gambling.

Though wearied by the travelling, she insisted on setting off almost immediately to visit the girls in her main refuge in the countryside, a three-hour drive away, where former sex workers attend school and learn skills like weaving and sewing so that they can earn a living outside the brothel.

She had received news that a six-year-old girl, along with her sister, had been sold into a brothel. The girl, later rescued, had developed full-blown Aids and was now dying. When we arrived, the little girl's face lit up at the sight of Mam, whom she had been crying out for. She put out her arms and hugged her. "I haven't seen her and the other girls for a month," Mam said.

"It is too long. Many of these girls are orphans or have been sold by their parents and I am their mother. They did not have a childhood, and I am trying to give back what they lost."

Here is Chim Chanry, who at the age of seven was raped by her uncle while she slept at her brother's house. When she revealed what had happened to her brother, he tried to kill her with a knife. Rejected by her family after the incident, she was sold into a brothel by her sister. 'she has never been home," said Mam.

Here is Keo, a 15-year-old orphaned Vietnamese girl who lived with her stepmother, who sold her via Cambodia into a brothel over the border in neighbouring Thailand. The brothel-keeper sold her on to another brothel, where she lived off a packet of noodles a day. When she became sick, the owner beat her and tortured her with electric shocks. Rescued by a Thai sister organisation of Mam's organisation Afesip, she does not know who her parents are or where they live. Still today, months after her rescue, her eyes are expressionless, dead, the eyes of someone who has borne the unbearable.

Here, too, is one of two sisters who was sold to a brothel by her mother when she was five - nobody knows how much for. She was drugged and beaten, passed from man to man, until she was rescued by Afesip and brought to the centre. How is she doing, I ask. Mam pauses. 'she is HIV-positive," Mam says. "We are going to make her life as comfortable as possible until she dies. It breaks the heart."

Also there is a little orphan girl. Her mother, a prostitute, had arrived at the centre covered in blood. She had been mutilated by a client who was trying to take out her unborn baby to offer it to the temple to bring him good luck. Horribly injured, her mother died while giving birth and the little baby was brought up by another former prostitute who had a baby of the same age.

These are just a few of the examples of the 45 girls at the Kompong Cham centre learning a new life. Being in Mam's care, they are the luckier ones. For every girl Afesip saves, there are dozens more who suffer in silence and isolation.

Prostitution and underage sex are nothing new in Cambodia. The great Chinese traveller Chou Ta-Kuan, who was an emissary to the kingdom of Angkor, describes on his travels through Cambodia in the 13th century the pinnacle of Khmer civilisation: the deflowering of young girls in a religious ceremony. Still today in the countryside, parents take their daughters to the monastery around the age of 14 to be deflowered by the head monk.

It is meant to bring good fortune. There is another reason why very young girls are in demand in Cambodia: as virgins they are thought through intercourse to cure Aids.

Ta-Kuan also described how the king had four to five thousand women in his palace, and even in modern times there is no law governing the number of young concubines the kings of Cambodia may have. Famously, in 1951, when he was 29 and already had four concubines and 10 children, Cambodia's playboy King Norodom Sihanouk took Monique Izzi, a half-Italian, half-Cambodian beauty, as his fifth concubine when she was only 16. They quickly had two children.

One of the great charms of Cambodia was that its people were pleasure-seeking and insouciant and lived simple, natural lives revolving around the family, Buddhist festivals and the rhythm of the seasons.

Perhaps that is too idealistic. Behind the enigmatic Khmer smile there were always undercurrents of violence, which exploded into the open finally with the war and the savagery of the Khmer Rouge. But the country's cultural values have been warped since by unbridled greed, consumerism and massive exploitation.

I well remember what a Cambodian foreign-ministry official said to me as Cambodia struggled to get back on its feet in the 1980s after the Khmer Rouge tyranny which had turned the clock in Cambodia back to Year Zero.

"Go and tell your investor friends that Cambodia is like a beautiful woman lying on her back with her legs open waiting to be taken," Chum Bun Rong said.

How true in every context this is. Sexual slavery has got such a strong grip on Cambodia now that defeating it is almost impossible. It is spreading like a cancer, and a new phenomenon that Mam and others combating the sex trade find particularly virulent and disturbing is the accompanying terrible rise in sexual violence.

Prior to 1990 there were no words for gang rape in the Khmer language. It did not exist. Now young Cambodians have invented the word bauk for it. Gang rape has become the norm in urban youth culture. Why exactly this is so, nobody knows, but the spread of violent pornographic films that are constantly playing in some local bars is thought to be part of the reason. In Phnom Penh the other day an old Indochina hand said to me: "Call Cambodia paradise and kiss it goodbye." Read more!