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Is Cambodia finally moving on human traffickers?

The government’s tone has changed since Hun Manet took power in August with arrests made and reforms announced, but violence continues
This photo taken on Sept. 26, 2022, shows the Immigration Removal Center in Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province. Cambodia's National Committee for Counter Trafficking has prepared a 2024-2028 initiative to combat human trafficking 'as perpetrators have gone high-tech in cross-border human trafficking' involving countries across the region

This photo taken on Sept. 26, 2022, shows the Immigration Removal Center in Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province. Cambodia's National Committee for Counter Trafficking has prepared a 2024-2028 initiative to combat human trafficking 'as perpetrators have gone high-tech in cross-border human trafficking' involving countries across the region. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 16, 2023 11:28 AM GMT
Updated: November 17, 2023 04:17 AM GMT

For more than a year Cambodia has deflected criticism of doing too little too late when dealing with human traffickers, much to the irritation of its major benefactor Beijing, which needs Phnom Penh to rescue Chinese citizens from Chinese gangsters.

It’s an irritation not helped by a widespread and erroneous belief that the Chinese government was working in league with criminal syndicates. This was highlighted by a report released in September last year by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime.

Entitled “Sihanoukville a Hub of Environmental Crime Convergence,” the 32-page report challenged the role of “oknhas” — a title bestowed by the Cambodian government on favored businessmen — and singled out Chinese businessmen holding Cambodian citizenship.

“There is growing frustration ... with reporting on China’s role in Cambodia that inelegantly replays the view that ‘China’ and ‘Chinese actors’ together operate as a monolithic, coordinated and state-backed entity,” it found. “The reality is far more complex.”

“The Chinese government has been making serious attempts to address Chinese-linked criminality in Cambodia,” it said. “But ... these attempts are largely being hampered by ineffectual or unwilling local officials in Cambodia.”

The diplomatic circuit is now saying that “the tone” of the government has changed since Hun Manet took power in August and a slew of arrests, a bureaucratic shake-up, and a five-year counter-trafficking strategy seem to support arguments that a sterner effort is being made.

"About 100,000 people have been forced to carry out online scams from Cambodia"

Heading those efforts is the National Committee for Counter Trafficking. It has prepared a 2024-2028 initiative to combat human trafficking “as perpetrators have gone high-tech in cross-border human trafficking” involving countries across the region.

Typically — and it is well documented — trafficked people are sold to syndicates running online scams but criminal elements are many and varied and have been tied to all sorts of smuggling including drugs, illegal timber and wildlife as well as online scams and illegal gambling.

And it’s ongoing amid further arrests, deportations and repatriations.

On Oct 4, 28 Indonesians — all suspected victims of human traffickers — were repatriated from Phnom Penh. Last week, 25 Japanese were deported for running phone scams and on Nov 13 officials announced operators of the PK777 online casino would face serious punishment.

According to the UN Human Rights Office, about 100,000 people have been forced to carry out online scams from Cambodia, an industry it says is worth about US$12.5 billion a year. But embassy sources here say that is a starting figure and its real annual value is closer to $20 billion.

Seven police officers, including a former deputy chief of the Anti-Drug Police Department, were charged on Nov 9 and are in custody for allegedly arresting, and falsely detaining eight Chinese nationals before demanding $100,000 in exchange for their release.

And there is speculation of a management shake-up at the Ream Naval Base on the south coast, near Sihanoukville, where the Chinese have invested billions of dollars through its Belt and Road initiative.

Meanwhile, reports of violence continue and are often splashed across the pages of pro-government newspapers. On Oct 15, the Khmer Times reported, “Foreigner hung himself at a Cambodian casino after suffering a ‘mental crisis’.”

"The government’s tone has changed and they’re prepared to go after the human traffickers in a much harder way"

The body of a Taiwanese man was found in an abandoned car on Nov 7 after he was shot three times in the head and the Khmer Times added: “Police said the man may have been murdered due to his involvement in illegal online gambling.”

Two days later a deputy inspector of police — “who was suspected of trafficking and using illegal drugs — fell from the 37th floor of a Phnom Penh condo whilst trying to escape from the Anti-Drug Department”.

It’s these sorts of stories, alongside movies like No More Bets — a blockbuster success in China that highlights the dangers of human trafficking in Southeast Asia — that are scaring off tourists and their much-needed dollars and foreign investors.

“Rescues and repatriations obviously need to happen and those responsible have to be cleaned out if Cambodia is to attract legitimate investors, whether they come from China, Japan, or the West,” said one foreign investor who preferred anonymity given the government’s dislike of critics.

“It does appear that the government’s tone has changed and they’re prepared to go after the human traffickers in a much harder way and it is the only way authorities can improve this country’s much-maligned, sometimes unfairly, reputation.”

Hun Manet and his Thai counterpart, Srettha Thavisin, have pledged to fight transnational human trafficking and two months ago opened a center to provide trafficked victims with accommodation, food, health care, medical treatment, education, vocational training, and life safety skills.

But that won’t help Wachirawit Kongthong, a 25-year-old Thai who died of pneumonia in a Cambodian prison on Nov 6. He was lured into working for a call center gang, tortured and beaten by Chinese gang members when he failed to meet his targets.

The court heard that during one beating, Wachirawit fought back and a Chinese gangster was killed. Wachirawit was jailed for 12 years. His desperate mother could not afford the fee, almost $2,000, to retrieve her son’s body.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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