An Interview with Theary Seng, on Sex Trafficking in Cambodia

 Theary C. Seng is a former child refugee from the Khmer Rouge. She went on to become an attorney in the U.S. but has since returned to her place of birth in order to work full-time for human rights and social justice for her fellow Khmers. To learn more about her, see Nomi Network's, A Profile of Theary Seng, Cambodian Human Rights Activist.

Q. We know that you are involved with all of the human rights issues in Cambodia, especially with regard to trying to achieve justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. We at Nomi Network applaud your efforts. As an anti-sex trafficking organization, we would like to get your perspective on human trafficking in Cambodia.

I used to live on the riverfront in the heart of the respectable tourist sites of the palace, the national museum and high-end Western restaurants. But here also you find the sex traffickers roaming freely and openly preying on the young children or carousing with them in the open bars and public gardens. Here, it is an open hidden criminal enterprise as the problems run so wide and deep soiling even respectable spaces with their presence and activities. Cambodia is a safe haven for these criminals and sadists who not only exploit the bodies but also the souls and dignity of vulnerable young children and other human beings. Why? Easy profits with impunity because of the lax, corrupt law enforcement and many times the collusion with certain powerful individuals in law enforcement, military and government who profit from the trade.

It is not uncommon for me to hear stories from waitresses who would point out suspicious looking men here and there, each with two or three young girls around him sitting at a table near me in a respectable local hang out on the riverfront, detailing the patterns, frequency and behavior at their establishments. I would sit listening helplessly.

You cannot live in Cambodia and escape the trafficking problems, especially sex trafficking; you only need to open the local or English newspapers, listen to the Radio Free Asia, VOA or one of the other few broadcasts, pass along the riverfront and the myriads of karaoke/girly bars, or have a long enough conversation with another person, and the issues will bound to rise, many times discussed with resignation, nonchalance and only at times with a visceral disgust.

This is just surface observation. There’s a hellish underbelly to the night life that I am not even close to understanding, with all the 40-plus girly bars frequented by the foreigners and the countless karaoke salons and beer gardens frequented by the locals. They are already audacious in the broad daylight. What hell must go on behind those doors under the cover of night?

This modern slavery, whereby a PERSON is under the control of another and is treated as a chattel, with no pay or only the basic minimal subsistence includes not only sex trafficking involving girls and women but also includes forced labor among the children and the men. These problems run rampant here as well. People are kept as things, as objects and worked in the harshest conditions with effectively no pay to ever get out of this condition.

Q. We know that you and your entire family, along with millions of others, were used as slave labor by the Khmer Rouge during that period. Apart from driving Cambodia into abject poverty, which is a root cause of human trafficking, what impact, if any, did the Khmer Rouge have on either sex-trafficking, sexual violence, or prostitution?

The Khmer Rouge imprinted a destructive mentality upon us. A destructive mentality of impunity. A destructive mentality of helplessness. A destructive mentality of amorality where no longer our conscience pricks us of guilt. A destructive mentality of violence. A destructive mentality of dehumanizing another into objects. A destructive mentality of exploitation, of lack of accountability. This is why parents can sell their own children and not feel. Sexual violence occured during the Khmer Rouge years, but not to this degree. Prostitution did not exist during the Khmer Rouge years. The Khmer Rouge legacy is one of a dark mentality rather than one specific sexual or violent acts.  The acts are only symptoms of something more diabolical.

Q. Since your return to Cambodia are you able to tell if the human trafficking situation in Cambodia is getting better or worse?

My first direct encounter with trafficking occurred in late 1995; I have at once a vivid and surreal/dreamlike memory of the crime. I was with a group of other volunteers going out in the late evening for fruit shakes on the circle of the Independence Monument. All of a sudden from nowhere, a woman ran wildly into our midst incoherently, wildly flailing for help. A few seconds later a man came screaming obscenity and waving a gun. Another Cambodian-American friend and I reflexively wrapped our bodies around hers to shield her away from the man who was screaming that she belonged to him using the most vulgar language. After what seemed like at least 20 minutes of surreal encounters of heated exchange and when he realized we weren’t going to let her go despite his violent threats, he moved away with the threat that he’ll find her yet.

This is the most direct and dramatic encounter I’ve had, but the situation now is a thousand times worse because of the porous borders, increased tourism, the obscene infusion of money involved and not available before, the increased inequity between the small elite and the poor majority, between rural poor and the urban rich, unemployment especially among a population of 14 million where half are under 20 years old, lack of education among a very traumatized population, and other social upheavals.

Q. In your work in Cambodia, have you or any of your organizations dealt with the issue of human trafficking, either of labor, sex, or other forms of trafficking?

I used to be very involved with the labor movement when it was just starting in 1997, but now my human rights work focuses mainly on education, justice and reconciliation as they relate to the Khmer Rouge years and to the KR Tribunal. My interest in the trafficking problems now is more a personal undertaking rather than regular professional involvement. How can I not be concerned especially as a fellow Cambodian woman? Their dignity is my dignity. The assault against them is an assault against me.

Q. What do you think can be done to help victims of sex trafficking, and what do you think can be done to eradicate sex trafficking permanently?

Effective law enforcement combined with education, employment and greater vigilance and concern by everyone in the community.

Q. In the various efforts in Cambodia to eliminate sex trafficking, do you see any gaps in the efforts of the organizations that are fighting it?

The human rights problems in Cambodia are so widespread and persistent; the trafficking issue is only one in a sea of problems. Everyone in civil society is stretched thin in terms of energy and resources. This said, however, better coordination could be had generally and more so with the courts and law enforcement. We tend to focus on the problems of the foreign perpetrators, but the larger problem is homegrown; it’s Cambodian men who are abusing their own; it’s the parents who are abusing their own; it’s the corrupt law enforcement officials and military who are abusing their own. We need to own up this very hard fact and be accountable.

Q. Are there any historical, cultural or gender issues that are specific to either Cambodia or the greater Mekong region that might be contributing to human trafficking? If so, what can be done about them?

Cambodian men believe that sleeping with virgins will give them virility, the younger the girl the better, especially with the fear of AIDS.

The problems in Vietnam and Thailand started with the Vietnam War and the large population of young soldiers; they persist with increased tourism again introduced to the region by the war.

The problems in Cambodia started with the presence of 24,000 UN soldiers and the problems persisted and stayed with increased tourism and the greater flush of money flowing through Cambodia since.

Q. Does the Cambodian government take human trafficking seriously enough? Prostitution is against the law in Cambodia. Do you think that there will ever be respect for and prosecution of the law, and what will it take to achieve that?

The Cambodian government can do so much more to combat trafficking in terms of education, law enforcement, and prosecution in the immediate term. The problem here is that some very power military and government officials are deeply involved in the trafficking syndicates, and they are untouched by the law and punishment.

The government is woefully inept in tackling the root causes of trafficking such as education, employment, legal and judicial reform, containing the military to be under the powers of the three branches of government, corruption etc.

Q. We know that serious problems like sex trafficking do not exist in isolation. Do you care to talk comment about the relationship between human trafficking and either other human rights abuses or unjust social conditions in Cambodia?

Trafficking is a serious symptom of the larger societal problems plaguing Cambodia: impunity, lack of education, trauma, unemployment, etc. The problem is one of mentality: the mentality of fear, of repression, of censorship.

- Stephen M. Bauer


  1. Thanks for this very interesting interview! This is such a great reminder that human trafficking is merely the symptom, the festering of a disease, and that we need to go beyond rescue and recovery to development. This is also the case in the U.S. - it's important for anti-human trafficking organizations to build coalitions with other organizations that can help get to the root causes and prevent trafficking in the first place.

    Thanks again. I'm inspired!



Post a Comment

Popular Posts