The fight against child sex trafficking in Cambodia is far from over

A prostitute waits for a client in her room ina brothel area known as Building in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (David Paul Morris/For The Washington Post)
A prostitute waits for a client in her room ina brothel area known as Building in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (David Paul Morris/For The Washington Post)

“You can go Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The place is called Svay Pak. There are many there you can try. Age around 6 to 16. Depending on what u want to do. I find 12 to 14 year olds the best as they are freshest and is becoming a grown up girl soon. Innocent too. :) and very curious about sex.”

This is a milder excerpt from e-mails sent to an undercover police officer. They came from a Singaporean pedophile named Chan Chun Hong who was planning to visit Svay Pak, Cambodia, to have sex with children.

He had purchased airline tickets for April 2014.

This month, The Post published a commentary by Holly Burkhalter [“A safer home for Cambodia’s little girls”] that detailed her view of the Cambodian government’s transformation regarding child sex trafficking. She contended that several factors, including international embarrassment from media coverage and U.S. diplomacy, have ended the “big business” of child sexual exploitation.

I write to you from Svay Pak, a village outside Phnom Penh where our rescue team has worked with the Cambodian police for the past year and found a very different story: The big business of selling prepubescent girls to foreign pedophiles for thousands of dollars still exists, though it looks very different than it did a decade ago.

There are zero child brothels today in Svay Pak, where sexual predators were once waved in by children taught to solicit strangers. The days of brazen selling with a storefront are gone.

The underground business, though, is thriving.

Today’s child exploitation starts on the street, where a pedophile is approached by a pimp. The client places his “order” and is met at a hotel by the seller and the “commodity”: a child used for sex.

“The Accused planned for both of them to go to KTVs to select young girls to bring back to their hotel room. Thereafter, if they were more adventurous, the Accused planned for them to go to the more “kampong” or rural areas to search for even younger girls.” — Facts pertaining to 131st charge against Chan Chun Hong.

The crime is less obvious. Valid statistics are even harder to come by. Prosecutions are more difficult. This is how criminals succeed: They adapt.

Over the past year, our rescue team conducted 12 successful raids in which 81 women and children were rescued — 39 percent were underage. Another nine rescues of sex-trafficking victims are lined up; eight of these involve children. And our undercover agents consistently intercept sex-buyers looking in Svay Pak for underage girls.

Child sex trafficking has also shifted to meet the demand for brides in China. The rescue of Cambodian victims across borders is now a necessary challenge.

Having lived and worked in Svay Pak for more than four years, we have reliable data to support our view that Cambodia still has a significant way to go before a safer home for its girls is realized.

We are not alone in this assessment. The highest levels of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police agree and are committed to move forward, focused on the job at hand.

Chan Chun Hong was convicted of a dozen crimes and was sentenced March 31 to 56 months in jail. Interviewed about the case by the Phnom Penh Post, Nget Thy, executive director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, said, “I think it’s very important for other countries, other people to try . . . to prevent this situation. Based on my observation, [child sex tourism in Cambodia] is still going on.”

This plea from one of Cambodia’s own child advocates indicates not only the accuracy of Cambodia’s place on the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report — the country is on the Tier II Watch List — but also the need for it to stay there.

Decrying “mission accomplished” in the fight against child sex trafficking in Cambodia is premature. The danger in doing this too soon is that, by exaggerating the success, we will turn the international spotlight away from an area of the world that still needs it. Worse, we will stop listening for the cries of girls who are exploited.

There is no doubt that, through the substantial efforts of U.S. diplomacy, nongovernmental organizations and the country’s anti-trafficking police, significant progress has been made in Cambodia. However, there is still a long way until we can proclaim victory. Now is the time not to give up but rather to adapt and redouble our efforts.

The story of how a poor country came to protect its children and how U.S. diplomacy and assistance helped it do so is one we all desperately want to tell.

Sadly, we are not there yet.

Donald J. Brewster is founder and chief executive of Agape International Missions, which fights sex trafficking.

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