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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Striking the Brothels’ Bottom Line

In trying to figure out how we can defeat sex trafficking, a starting point is to think like a brothel owner.

My guide to that has been Sok Khorn, an amiable middle-aged woman who is a longtime brothel owner here in the wild Cambodian town of Poipet. I met her five years ago when she sold me a teenager, Srey Mom, for $203 and then blithely wrote me a receipt confirming that the girl was now my property. At another brothel nearby, I purchased another imprisoned teenager for $150.

Astonished that in the 21st century I had bought two human beings, I took them back to their villages and worked with a local aid group to help them start small businesses. I’ve remained close to them over the years, but the results were mixed.

The second girl did wonderfully, learning hairdressing and marrying a terrific man. But Srey Mom, it turned out, was addicted to methamphetamine and fled back to the brothel world to feed her craving.

I just returned again to Ms. Khorn’s brothel to interview her, and found something remarkable. It had gone broke and closed, like many of the brothels in Poipet. One lesson is that the business model is more vulnerable than it looks. There are ways we can make enslaving girls more risky and less profitable, so that traffickers give up in disgust.

For years, Ms. Khorn had been grumbling to me about the brothel — the low margins, the seven-day schedule, difficult customers, grasping policemen and scorn from the community. There was also a personal toll, for her husband had sex with the girls, infuriating her, and the couple eventually divorced bitterly. Ms. Khorn was also troubled that her youngest daughter, now 13, was growing up surrounded by drunken, leering men.

Then in the last year, the brothel business became even more challenging amid rising pressure from aid groups, journalists and the United States State Department’s trafficking office. The office issued reports shaming Cambodian leaders and threatened sanctions if they did nothing.

Many of the brothels are owned by the police, which complicates matters, but eventually authorities in Cambodia were pressured enough that they ordered a partial crackdown.

“They didn’t tell me to close down exactly,” said another Poipet brothel owner whom I’ve also interviewed periodically. “But they said I should keep the front door closed.”

About half the brothels in Poipet seem to have gone out of business in the last couple of years. After Ms. Khorn’s brothel closed, her daughter-in-law took four of the prostitutes to staff a new brothel, but it’s doing poorly and she is thinking of starting a rice shop instead. “A store would be more profitable,” grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa.

“The police come almost every day, asking for $5,” she said. “Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. ... Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn’t a brothel. I say that we’re all sisters.”

Ms. Channa, who does not seem to be imprisoning anyone against her will, readily acknowledged that some other brothels in Poipet torture girls, enslave them and occasionally beat them to death. She complained that their cruelty gives them a competitive advantage.

But brutality has its own drawbacks as a business model, particularly during a crackdown, pimps say. Brothels that imprison and torture girls have to pay for 24-hour guards, and they lose business because they can’t allow customers to take girls out to hotel rooms. Moreover, the Cambodian government has begun prosecuting the most abusive traffickers.

“One brothel owner here was actually arrested,” complained another owner in Poipet, indignantly. “After that, I was so scared, I closed the brothel for a while.”

To be sure, a new brothel district has opened up on the edge of Poipet — in the guise of “karaoke lounges” employing teenage girls. One of the Mama-sans there offered that while she didn’t have a young virgin girl in stock, she could get me one.

Virgin sales are the profit center for many brothels in Asia (partly because they stitch girls up and resell them as virgins several times over), and thus these sales are their economic vulnerability as well. If we want to undermine sex trafficking, the best way is to pressure governments like Cambodia’s to organize sting operations and arrest both buyers and sellers of virgin girls. Cambodia has shown it is willing to take at least some action, and that is one that would strike at the heart of the business model.

Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead.
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Cambodian premier says he will attend ASEAN summit

Phnom Penh - Cambodia's prime minister will attend next month's summit of the Association of Sout East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in neighboring Thailand despite hinting last week he would boycott the meeting, media reports said Monday.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week that attending this year's series of ASEAN meetings would be too costly and time consuming, but Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told The Phnom Penh Post newspaper that the premier definitely would attend.

'I would like to confirm that Prime Minister Hun Sen will attend the ASEAN meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, from February 27 to 28 and March 1,' Hor Namhong said.

The meeting was originally scheduled for mid-December 2008 but was postponed and relocated due to ongoing domestic political turmoil in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have been simmering since July last year when a border dispute at an ancient Hindu temple erupted into a brief military skirmish.. Read more!

This Hyphenated Life / 30 years after revolution, Cambodia is blossoming with tikkun olam

I recently returned from spending Hanukah in Cambodia, a place so remote that even Chabad has not yet ventured there.

How can a country known for man at his very worst - genocide, land mines, sex trade, acid throwing etc. - be a source of hope and inspiration?

Looking back at my whirlwind trip last month, which included a meeting with the country's young and personable king, as well as Khmer Rouge survivors, former street children and even local Muslims, an answer begins to emerge.
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Amidst the squalor and heart-wrenching beggars (Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia), Phnom Penh is bustling with throngs of smiling people - often three and four on one moped.

It's especially remarkable that a city which had all its residents forcibly evacuated to the country side by the world's most radical communist regime in the mid 70s, is now home to an uptick in foreign trade and investment, a real estate boom, gentrified French colonial buildings with hip new restaurants, and even a recent glowing profile in the travel section of the New York Times.

While veteran western visitors barely recognize the place, from my newbie perspective, Phnom Penh has retained its indigenous charm and has not yet been overrun by crass commercialism. A sign that reads 'KFC coming soon' is a warning that?s about to change.

In the meantime, speaking of signs, you have to look hard to find any outward evidence of Jewish life. In total I spotted one Zim container, one homemade Israeli flag proudly flying among a row of flags along the Mekong River, and a pair of loud Hebrew speaking tourists (I'm being redundant).

Seriously, it's hard not to see the country from a very Jewish perspective. It starts with our shared experience of mass murder.

January 11th marks the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of Cambodia from the brutal forces of Pol Pot - although I was reminded that he and his troops continued to haunt the country from the periphery basically until his death in 1998. Countless comparisons to the Holocaust have been made before and for good reason.

If you haven't heard it, add the name, Tuol Sleng to Auschwitz, Bergen Belson, etc. It was the notorious prison and torture center set in a former high school in the middle of an ordinary suburban neighborhood and more than the swaying palm trees and barbed wire remain.

Not the polished floors and multimedia video displays that you'll find at Yad VaShem and the Holocaust Museums, instead clearly underfunded and understaffed with bullet marked walls, cracked tiles, shackles, and pictures of the familiar yet haunting stares of the victims.

You don't need to go to museums to hear the stories. "My father was a math teacher and for that he was murdered by the Khmer Rouge," said our tour guide as he took us through the amazingly beautiful historical ruins of Angkor Wat. A wonderful Cambodian woman returning to visit her native country, told us how her younger brother and father disappeared and that she ate rats to survive before fleeing to the US.

Yet, like Israel after the Holocaust, something special is starting to emerge out of the ashes and there is much more to the link between our peoples than genocide.

If there was an international capital for Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), aka a lab for social entrepreneurship in '08/09, this is it. Here's a glimpse of what I saw:

Eat at Friends (and scores of other cause related restaurants and shops) and have gourmet like cuisine cooked and served by former street children.

Visit the country's first dormitory for women college students built by author and MIT Professor Alan Lightman and his Harpswell Foundation (I'm honored to be on their advisory board).

Meet a Cambodian ex-pat who is providing much needed psychological counseling to a country with only a handful of mental health professionals.

See T-shirts and bumper stickers urging protection for Cambodia?s children from horrific cases of pedophilia.

Sit in a newly constructed mosque, as we did, speaking to Cham Muslims (one of the most persecuted groups under the Khmer Rouge) who are shunned by the Islamic world for embracing a moderate religious practice that would make most of us think of Reform Judaism.

Make no mistake about it, this progress is both nascent, and given the country's history and continued challenges, precarious too.

My wife and I joined five others, who are much more active than we are in helping turn Cambodia around, in an hour long meeting at the royal palace with the gracious and impressive King of Cambodia. When leaving he made a point of both thanking us for our support and expressing "the need your continued help."

While I didn't have the chance to explain the significance of the Hanukkiah we gave to King Sihamoni as a gift, later in the day I was able to play the role of Jewish emissary.

'Nes Gadol Haya Sham' (A Big Miracle Happened There) I wrote in Hebrew on the white board for students at the Harpswell Foundation's dormitory, using the familiar motto of Hanukkah.

These young women were screened and selected for their intelligence, ambition and leadership abilities. They arrived from poor rural areas and only a year or two ago first saw running water, let alone a computer, and are now ranked at the top of their respective classes at the country?s most prestigious universities.

'Nes Gadol Haya Sham' these 35 young Cambodian women enthusiastically repeated.
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