Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of an American-led Christian organization that rescues child sex slaves, saying comments the founder made in a recent media report amounted to a “serious insult” against the country.
On July 25, CNN broadcast a follow up to a report it ran four years ago, interviewing three girls from Svay Pak—a suburb on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh—who had reportedly been sold into the sex trade by their mothers and later rescued by Agape International Missions (AIM), a charity operated in Cambodia by American pastor Don Brewster since 1988.
According to Brewster, Svay Pak had at one point been the center of child sex trafficking in Cambodia, but had improved dramatically in recent years. Child prostitution continues in the area, he said, although not as openly as it once did.
On Tuesday, while addressing a commencement ceremony at Koh Pich Island in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that AIM’s contribution to a report which said that mothers in Cambodia had sold their daughters into prostitution was a “serious insult against Cambodian women” and ordered the organization closed.
“This kind of organization will be investigated,” he said.
“I order the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs to scrutinize this case and promptly shut down [the organization]. Such an act cannot be tolerated.”
Hun Sen also demanded that the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh investigate AIM’s activities, which he said would lead to the shutdown of “other NGOs involved in this case.”
Under Cambodia’s controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), pushed through parliament by the ruling party in 2015, authorities have the right to close down any group that poses a threat to national security or defames the country’s “traditions and culture.”
Hun Sen’s order followed a July 27 statement from president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia Huy Vannak to CNN that implied AIM had made efforts to “inflate certain issues … to acquire funding from Western donors at the cost of [the] Cambodian image.”
Huy Vannak, who is undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Interior and news chief for the government-aligned Cambodian Television Network (CTN) and Cambodian News Channel (CNC), also took issue with CNN’s headline, “The Cambodian Girls Sold For Sex by Their Mothers,” saying the girls in the report were ethnic Vietnamese. CNN later removed the word “Cambodian” from the title.
CNN stood by its reporting, however, in a comment to the Phnom Penh Post on Monday, saying its stories “revisit our original investigation from 2013 and clearly highlight the progress that has been made since by the authorities in Cambodia.”
While many of the residents of Svay Pak are Vietnamese immigrants, reports by NGOs and arrest records suggest that the children of impoverished majority ethnic Khmer are also at risk of sex trafficking.
On Tuesday, in response to Hun Sen’s order, secretary of state for the Ministry of the Interior Pol Lim refused to provide details about AIM’s situation, saying an investigation into the organization is ongoing.
“[I can’t elaborate] until we review everything—we must first look into the legality of [the organization], including whether they registered [as an NGO] or not, and second determine whether the organization has breached any law,” he said.
Calls to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Chum Sunry went unanswered Tuesday.
Representatives of AIM said Tuesday that they were unable to discuss the situation with RFA’s Khmer Service, as the organization is awaiting the results of the Ministry of the Interior’s investigation.
The U.S. embassy’s spokesperson in Phnom Penh, Arend Zwartjes, referred questions about AIM’s activities to the organization.
He commended Cambodia’s “impressive strides [in] countering child sex trafficking,” citing recent reports by the U.S. Department of State, but acknowledged that “challenges remain.”
“We believe that committed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), working closely with the Government and the international community, are a very important part of the solution,” he said.
Cambodia received a Tier 2 ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons report—a classification assigned to “governments of countries that do not fully meet the minimum standards [set by U.S. law to eliminate human trafficking] but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”
Am Sam Ath, the head of domestic civil society group LICADHO’s investigations section, said Tuesday that his organization does not support any entity found to be in breach of the law, but urged the government to conduct its investigation of AIM independently and transparently.
He said that the public has the right to know whether AIM was involved in any illegal operations or if its activities affected Cambodia’s image, adding that shutting the organization down without presenting evidence could been seen as a threat to all NGOs in the country.
“Our country abides by law and the expertise of the authorities,” he said.
“Nevertheless, there must be an investigation prior to any shutdown decision. There must be a proper investigation that produces evidence of any offenses committed or how the organization acted against the NGO law, so as to avoid confusing the domestic and international community.”
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.