Being unable to travel to a particular country this summer has had the unexpected upside that I am able to work on Winrock projects in multiple countries. While Winrock manages several counter-trafficking projects, I have worked exclusively within South and Southeast Asia. As my last post focused on Winrock’s program in Bangladesh, this one will focus on Cambodia.  

One unsurprisingly common theme that runs through the countries with the worst trafficking abuses is the utter failure of the political leadership in those countries. In Cambodia, that failure comes with a name: Hun Sen.

Hun Sen came to power as a génocidaire of the Khmer Rouge before fleeing to Vietnam during internecine conflict within the Khmer Rouge. Sen returned to Cambodia as one of the leaders of the Vietnamese-sponsored rebel army, and, following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Vietnamese-installed government in 1979. Sen was elected Prime Minister in 1985 and has ruled Cambodia in that position ever since. 

Cambodia has suffered greatly under his regime. As Prime Minister, Sen has been plausibly linked to extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, censorship, and bans on assembly and association, according to Human Rights Watch. To keep Cambodia in his thrall, the regime has developed a national network of spies and informers to frighten and intimidate the public. 

Sen’s regime recently imprisoned at least 39 people for publicly discussing the pandemic. This group included a 14-year-old girl who left a voice message in her class’ group chat asking people to please wear their facemasks to prevent additional deaths. This innocent plea contradicted the regime’s claim that no one in Cambodia has died of COVID-19. 

The Counter-Trafficking in Persons Program in Cambodia is in its fifth and final year. As with many developing countries, Cambodia has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. The garment industry, which employs approximately 500,000 Cambodians, has been, and continues to be, decimated. Tourism, responsible for a third of Cambodia’s GDP in healthier years, has ground to a halt. At every level of the Cambodian economy, the pandemic has wreaked havoc. The resulting precarity makes many vulnerable Cambodians ripe for exploitation by human traffickers. 

The Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report documents the many forms that exploitation takes. 

In the fishing industry, traffickers recruit men and boys to work on Thai fishing vessels in international waters. There they are often confined at sea for years at a time, prevented from coming onshore. These Cambodian victims have been found as far afield as the western coast of Africa. Many Cambodians are trapped in this industry, the victims of deceptive recruitment, physical abuse, and nonpayment of wages. The barbarity of this system is well-captured in the 2019 film “Buoyancy”, a YouTube clip of which can be found here.

Vulnerable Cambodians are also exploited in the brick-making industry. More than 10,000 Cambodians, including nearly 4,000 children, are subjected to debt-based coercion in this industry. Routinely, a worker will take out a loan that is to be repaid in the form of brick-making labor. In this way, brick kiln owners trap workers in indefinite cycles of debt where workers must borrow to pay off existing loans. Children of brick-making households are regularly employed in the brick-making process and work ten to fifteen hours a day, six days a week, twelve months a year, precluding them from attending school.

In an example of how a despotic regime fails its people, endemic corruption in Cambodia ensures that traffickers operate with impunity. In the past year, local officials accepted bribes and forged identity documents to facilitate cross-border trafficking. Law-enforcement raids on sex trafficking establishments were thwarted by advance notice from complicit police officials. Some corrupt officials are suspected of colluding with sex and labor traffickers for their own personal enrichment.

Beyond simply turning a blind eye, government officials colluded with brick manufacturers to arrest, jail, and return indentured laborers attempting to escape their bondage. Prosecutors and judges are plausibly accused of accepting bribes, and, in many cases, corrupt officials have prevented the prosecution of perpetrators with government ties.

International NGOs have their work cut out for them.