As we drove through the dusty, bustling streets of Siem Reap, bare-footed children ran after our vehicle and began knocking at our window, eager for money. The word “corruption” hadn’t held much meaning to me until I saw it prevailing through Cambodia in every aspect. And it was impossible to ignore. Even when eating out in a restaurant, mothers eyed us as their children sat at our feet, begging and weeping “no food”. Neon-lit karaoke bars blasted tasteless pop, full of 14 year old girls awaiting their nightly income. The high streets teemed with promoters from the local brothels. It was a hard hitting reality that Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.
Cambodia is perceived to be the most corrupt country in South East Asia. With over a quarter of its population being illiterate and 18.6% living below the national poverty line (less than £1 a day), forced labour and sexual exploitation affects lives every day. The young working in brothels are sex slaves; they receive no money, only food, and armed guards stop them from running away and inflict torture. One of the common myths about human trafficking is that it only affects women. This is not to say we should ignore the female victims of debt bondage who get sold as possessions to brothels. However, there needs to be more awareness for the men subjected to forced labour through the agriculture and fishing industry, and children as young as 5 years old who are sold as sex slaves, making up 1/3 of trafficking victims in prostitution, as these are present and on-going issues.
How did it end up like this?
It was only 50 years ago that Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, and had a booming population of 7 million. On the 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized the Capital City, Phnom Pehn, and began the massacre of 2 million lives. Led by Pol Pot, leader of the Cambodian Communist party, the government began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia; Cambodia was to be “purified” into an extreme form of peasant Communism.
The Khmer Rouge aimed to create “Year Zero”, and saw cities as a cause of capitalism that therefore had to be demolished. The ideal was a perfect agrarian society, where everyone is a peasant and equal, and society functions via a shared, communal system. There were to be no crimes, deceit, trickery, or Western influence. The ‘new people’ were those who were educated: doctors, teachers, even people who wore glasses, which were seen as a sign of intelligence and “the root of all capital evil”. They were all killed. Education was banned because it was thought to clutter minds with useless information, and distract people from being simple and hardworking. For this reason, all forms of media, religion and money were abolished. Science, technology, medicine and mechanics were also all viewed as forms of evil. The new society, “The Angkar”, was to be self-reliant, without law and order, resulting in the production of surpluses of rice. This incomprehensible genocide was out to bring Democratic Kampuchea to its past.
“To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” (Khmer Rouge slogan)
Anyone living in a city was immediately driven out and forced into slave labour in the “killing fields”. For those who weren’t immediately executed for being foreign, educated, religious or disabled, workdays were 4am until 10pm harvesting in the rice fields. After the rice was harvested, it was immediately confiscated in trucks and the workers were left to starve, meaning many died from overwork, malnutrition, disease and often suicide. Anyone who was a threat to the Angkar was killed because the Angkar owned everything and private ownership was abolished. Families were split up and never reunited. The Khmer soldiers forced men to work for their lives and then they raped their wives and children. Corpses lay across the villages so disease spread fast.
The overwhelming effects of this mass devastation still taint the Kingdom of Cambodia today. From 1975, 260,000 refugees fled to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, or were settled in the States. Families were lost and Cambodia became known as “the land of orphans”. An entire generation of people were wiped out, and today over 50% of Cambodia’s population are under the age of 21. These people are hopeful and are eager for prosperity. Although the poverty rate in Cambodia has more halved in the past 10 years, it still exists and people are close to slipping back into it. 90% of teachers were killed under rule of the Khmer Rouge, thus a generation of Cambodians grew up illiterate and the education system today has been developed from scratch. Cambodians are fleeing as illegal immigrants to Thailand as if through an open dam, due to Cambodia’s low salaries and unemployment in order to feed their families. As a result, children are abandoned and enter poverty. The lack of education makes it hard for parents to find jobs and make a living: daughters are sold to brothels to pay off debt. Children are seen as property of the family, to which they must contribute. The lack of education means many are deceived and cannot make informed choices, leading to abduction and abuse by human traffickers. It is unfortunately an easy profit despite violating the victim’s rights. The Government of Cambodia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking due to the corruption in the judiciary and police system, therefore there is an increasing demand for NGO’s to provide services and meet the country’s basic needs.
I went out to work with a NGO called Cambodian Hope Organisation (CHO), whose primary aim is to restore Cambodia and help create strong hope-filled communities. Our work was based in Poipet, an area located on the Thai-Cambodia border, renown for trafficking and gambling, and where child trafficking is an increasing problem. Traffickers target children and cross into the Thai border illegally through rivers and rice fields, where they are exploited for labour, sex, begging and drug smuggling, and seen as purely a source of income. However, this is illegal and extremely dangerous, as a local we were working with testified to us that early that day 13 people were shot by police when trying to cross the border in a minibus, yet their death was passed off as a road traffic accident. By increasing the possibilities and opportunities in Poipet, children and their parents are less likely to be enticed over the border to Thailand.
One of the projects we worked on was school-on-a-mat, a free primary education service that provides education and a safe space for children at risk of exploitation while their parents work over the border in Thailand. Keeping the children in school not only gives them an education but provides future employment opportunities and discourages the children from begging on the streets or trafficking. CHO also promote awareness of child trafficking through visits to public schools, churches and village authorities on the border, running two education programs in child trafficking and domestic violence. Local children and their parents also receive lessons in trafficking recognition, which further decreases their vulnerability. It is essential that it is not merely the human traffickers who are targeted, but the establishment of preventative measures that are sustainable for the wider community.
To conclude, political corruption from over 40 years ago still means humans have lost their self-worth today. It is hard to witness the brokenness of a country filled with such potential, but the people of Cambodia aren’t giving up. We shouldn’t either.
- Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index
- 2008 National Population Census
- Cambodia Country Poverty Analysis 2014, Asian Development Bank