Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

On trial for treason for an online posting

By Dennis P. Halpin

The trial of an opposition senator accused of “treason” by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen opened October 2 with a denial of a request for bail based on medical considerations.  Senator Hong Sok Hour became embroiled this summer in Phnom Penh’s boisterous map war over the exact lines of the Cambodia-Vietnam border.  His continued incarceration has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, which stated on October 1 that “Cambodian authorities should end the prosecution of an opposition senator who has been wrongfully charged with forgery and incitement for posting online an inaccurate version of a 1979 Cambodian-Vietnam treaty.”

The border imbroglio accelerated after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) voiced concerns that Hun Sen’s government, given its past close ties to Vietnam, was making territorial concessions detrimental to Cambodia.  In August the CNRP turned over digital copies of a Cambodia-Vietnam border map purchased in France to Cambodia’s Royal Academy.  The map had previously been posted by CNRP party leader Sam Rainsy on Facebook.  The Phnom Penh Post reported on August 11 that Sok Touch, the director of the Royal Academy’s border research team, noted that his team was composed of neutral researchers “who want to put an end to this dispute about maps that politicians have used in verbal attacks.”

This very public dispute over borders has sent another Cambodian lawmaker to Washington to comb the files of the Library of Congress in search of the holy grail of Cambodian border maps, raised traditional fears of Vietnamese expansionism, and led to a breakdown of the political accommodation reached by the governing and opposition parties in the Cambodian parliament last year.  Prime Minister Hun Sen even publicly appealed this summer for U.S. president Obama to provide the Cambodian government with a map agreed upon by both countries in 1985 and reaffirmed in 2005.  “I’m not asking for the maps that the U.S. drew to enter Khmer land to bomb at the time – I ask for my maps only,” Hun Sen reportedly said sarcastically.

CNRP senator Hong Sok Hour, a reported border expert, was quoted on August 11 as predicting that maritime borders with Vietnam could be a “hot issue” in the future as well.  The senator did not have to wait very long to prove the point that this is a sizzling political issue.  Assuming that he had legislative immunity, Hong Sok Hour reportedly posted a section of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam border treaty on the internet.  Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen then termed this posting of a “fake” document “treasonous” in a public speech.  The hapless senator discovered the worthlessness of his presumed immunity as he was arrested by armed police and taken away on August 15.  The Cambodia Daily reported subsequently on September 18 that the Court of Appeal rejected Hong Sok Hour’s request for release based upon his immunity as a senator and ordered that he continue to be held, pending trial, on forgery and incitement charges.

The senator’s high-profile trial is but the most visible example of a human rights situation that is once again deteriorating in Cambodia.  On August 20, a group of 12 international and human rights organizations sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council urging it to support a resolution addressing  “the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia,” noting further that “[i]n the run-up to local and national elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018, the Cambodian Government ... has taken steps to further restrict Cambodian citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and to limit the political opposition’s ability to meaningfully engage in policymaking.”

The U.S. congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission issued a statement on August 18 further specifying the deteriorating human rights situation.  The commission’s co-chairs noted, “[T]he Cambodian legislature recently adopted a Law on Associations and NGOs which falls significantly short of international human rights standards governing the right to freedom of association. The law, passed in spite of protests by hundreds of people and still subject to Constitutional Council review, would allow the Government to deny registration on ill-defined bases, including if the purpose and goal of the association is perceived to ‘endanger the security, stability and public order or jeopardize national security, national unity, culture, traditions, and customs of Cambodian national society.’”  In seeking to curtail the rights of civil society, Hun Sen appears to be mimicking recent legislative measures taken by his Chinese patron, Xi Jinping.

In addition, the Lantos Commission noted that “eleven Cambodian opposition activists, known as the Freedom Park 11, were convicted and sentenced to between seven and twenty years’ imprisonment for participating or leading an ‘insurrection’, following a protest that turned violent on 15 July 2014. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which monitored the trial, there were irregularities such as the use of statements by witnesses not available for cross examination, and the absence of evidence that the defendants directly committed any acts of violence. An independent investigation by Human Rights Watch found no basis to the accusations. As the UNHCHR noted, the perception of governmental interference in this case undermines public trust in the Cambodian justice system.”

Not a pretty picture.  But over two decades after the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) sought to make Cambodia the poster child for emerging democracies in the post-Cold War era, many of the fundamentals of Cambodian politics have not transitioned.  As journalist Sebastian Strangio observed in his comprehensive work Hun Sen’s Cambodia, “[b]eneath these various guises Hun Sen ruled in the traditional Cambodian way, through a system of personal patronage in which money was passed upward in exchange for protection.  This he married to a fierce ambition, a serrated political instinct, and a genuine ability to channel the hopes and fears of rural Cambodians.  Hun Sen could be violent and unpredictable.  He had little tolerance for dissent.”*

Hun Sen’s renewed policies of repression at home did not in any way stymie him in his efforts to project himself on the world stage as Southeast Asia’s longest-serving elected official.  Speaking at the Sustainable Development Summit at U.N. Headquarters on September 26, Hun Sen unabashedly called on developed nations to fulfill their aid pledges to commit at least 0.07 percent of their annual income to foreign aid.  He made this call even as hundreds of Cambodian-Americans protested outside against the “kleptocratic dictator’s” continued incarceration of political opposition leaders and environmental activists .

The Brookings Institution noted in 2008 that “during the last decade, total development assistance to Cambodia amounted to about US$5.5 billion.”  Yet Hun Sen, as he recently proclaimed in New York, is not shy in asking for even more for a “kleptocratic” government that both lacks transparency in the distribution of international economic assistance and continues the imprisonment of political opponents as “traitors.”  The 1992 UNTAC mandate, which included  “aspects relating to human rights and the organization and conduct of free and fair general elections,” looks to be as elusive a goal as ever.

Dennis P.  Halpin, a former Cambodia analysist for the Department of State, is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute (SAIS) and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.

*Hun Sen’s Cambodia, Sebastian Strangio,  p. xiii

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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Social Media Allows Expression, But Users Weigh the Risks of Rumor

Sou Pisen, VOA Khmer
04 September 2015


PHNOM PENH— For many young Cambodians, social media has become more than simply a way to communicate with friends, and is a major source of news about their country and the world. But while observers say such websites have increased awareness about political issues in recent years, users are having to learn to negotiate the pitfalls of false information and rumor.

Facebook is the most popular social network in the country, and Cambodians use the site to share news stories, or firsthand accounts of events. With the country’s traditional media often seen as lacking in impartiality and serious analysis, social media provides a welcome source for an increasingly information-hungry population.

“Since 2012, especially during the fifth election [in 2013], Facebook has been used in a dramatically different way, to share and discuss about social and political issues, and so on,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center of Human Rights. “It’s unlike before, when they just used it for entertainment.”

Social media provides a platform for free expression, Chak Sopheap told VOA Khmer, adding a warning that since information on social media was largely people’s opinions, it may not always be true.

“It is not like information from professional media institutions, which require journalists to act ethically and professionally,” he said. “But Facebook users are just people that use it to express their ideas. Sometimes it might be right; sometimes it might be wrong.”

Ouk Kimseng, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information, told VOA Khmer that politicians and government officials, including those at ministerial level, were using social media to get messages out to the public and to the media.

“When journalists see their stance, they can then send [politicians] a message to their inbox to ask them questions,” he said.

However, Ouk Kimseng agreed that information on Facebook still needed to be verified.

“If we want to know whether the news someone posted is true or not, we should do some research on it,” he said. “Some believe [what they read on Facebook], but some do not. It is up to them.”

Facebook users told VOA Khmer that they do treat information on Facebook with some suspicion, and seek to verify news on professional media.

Kak Yutthavonn, a 22-year-old recent law graduate from the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), said that he primarily uses Facebook to communicate with friends and relative, but also gets some of his news from the site.

“There is small part of news that I get from Facebook, but I get a lot of news [media] institutions,” he said. “I receive news about traffic accidents by checking on Facebook, but many news articles about social issues are always exaggerated on social media.”

The rising use of Facebook to share information has seen a number of scandals arise among Cambodians, after unfounded rumors or theories quickly become accepted fact.

For example, in recent months some have alleged that a scourge of Chinese-made “plastic rice” had been dumped on the Cambodian market, leading many to believe the rice sold in markets was dangerous to health. Rumors have circulated that eggs, noodles and soy milk made with plastic or rubber have also been on sale.

Industry bodies and the government have sought to play down the rumors, but many have been convinced.

Dim Theng, deputy director of Cambodia Import Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate, said that such rumors shared on Facebook “cannot be trusted.”

“No plastic rice has been traded in the Cambodian market,” he insisted, explaining that no plastic rice had been identified by his department’s laboratory. He added that Facebook users should be cautious when spreading unverified news online, since doing so may have legal ramifications.

Student Ngel Sovanarith, 22, also studying at RULE, said he is cautious about believing what he reads on Facebook.

“I have to check where the news comes from,” he said. “If it is just from users, I don’t trust it, because it will carry the biases of those users.”

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cambodia’s Hun Sen Taps Himself for Glory

By Luke Hunt
February 20, 2015

The prime minister is planning a major memorial in the capital.

Russia’s Joseph Stalin, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and a host of South American dictators all excelled at building monuments to themselves. But with 20-20 hindsight they did look somewhat silly when times changed and statues came tumbling down.

Still, the egotistical notion that political leaders – popular or not, elected or not – should simply build an altar for their own glory and the adulation they feel they are owed once they have left the political arena never seems to go out of fashion.

North Korea’s dear leaders have excelled at this type of cultish behavior and now Cambodia’s legacy conscience prime minister, Hun Sen, appears headed down the same track.

Despite his dwindling popularity, the farm boy from Kampong Cham has formed a 20-man committee and enlisted the help of perhaps his favorite senator, Ly Yong Phat, who has donated a prime chunk of real estate, for construction of a memorial – 16 floors high.

The memorial will be built on 15 hectares on the peninsula that divides the Mekong River and Tonle Sap and stand as high as the nearby Sokha Hotel and dwarf the recently built statue of this country’s founding father and former monarch Norodom Sihanouk, whose immense popularity – even in death – remains a chief source of irritation for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

“We will build the win-win policy memorial monument in the center, and the ground floor will be an ordinary building to support the main monument that will be 50 meters to 60 meters high,” Chuch Phoeurn, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, told The Cambodian Daily.

Those dimensions will ensure Hun Sen’s memorial can be viewed from the all-important vantage points along the riverfront. The irony is the CPP has polled poorly in the capital during elections and those with the best view of the site probably did not vote for Hun Sen.

The deployment of Ly Yong Phat will also raise eyebrows. His net worth has been put at far more than $1 billion. That includes the value of a massive property portfolio, rubber and sugar plantations.

Civil society groups and investigative journalists have linked his interests to land-grabbing and child labor exploitation on his estates.

Fears evoked by the “King of Koh Kong” as Ly Yong Phat is known, prompted the resignation of Hun Sen’s sister Hun Sinath at the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection in December.

She said the ministry “does not dare” to investigate allegations that Ly Yong Phat had abused rights of villagers on his estates.

“I cannot continue to work in a ministry that cannot find justice for people through the complaints system. I will step down from my position and from now on become a normal citizen,” Sinath wrote on her Facebook page.

ANZ Royal, a joint venture between ANZ Bank in Australia and colorful local business identity Kith Meng, publicly severed ties with Ly Yong Phat in January last year.

Since being returned to power with a substantially reduced margin in mid 2013 elections, the CPP has tripped and stumbled over its inability to shore up its support, particularly here in the capital and in the major provincial centers where the opposition has traditionally done well.

“These people are tone deaf. Instead of focusing on legacy and listening to all the wrong people Hun Sen should just focus on governing for all the people before the next election,” a local analyst, who declined to be named, said. “Otherwise they might lose.”

The next election is due in 2018.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The House That Hun Sen Built

The strongman has ruled Cambodia for 30 years with corruption, charisma, and brute force. Now he’s facing the greatest challenge of his career.


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In late November, Cambodia’s squabbling politicians finally called a truce. In exchange for ending its year-long parliamentary boycott following national elections in July 2013, the government offered the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) some concessions. One was that the parliament would formally recognize the CNRP’s president, Sam Rainsy, as leader of the opposition, with a “rank equal to the prime minister.”

In practice, it was a hollow designation, the sort of status-boosting honorific that is common in the country’s politics. But Cambodia’s longtime leader had a message for anyone suspecting otherwise. Some people “may say that in Cambodia, there are two prime ministers,” Hun Sen, the country’s prime minister, told a hall of graduating students the following week. “I will just say one word … no.

Most Cambodians know no other leader. On Jan. 14, Hun Sen marks his 30th anniversary in power. In that time, the Cambodian leader has been one of the world’s great political Houdinis, passing unscathed through repeated cycles of his country’s turbulent history. He now stands as the longest-serving non-monarch in Asia and one of the world’s longest-ruling prime ministers — and at just 62, he still may have a ways to go.

Hun Sen’s remarkable career has tracked the tumults of modern Cambodia. He was born in 1952 to a family of peasant farmers in a village along the Mekong River, northeast of the capital, Phnom Penh. When he was 13, Hun Sen’s parents sent him to study in the capital, just as neighboring Vietnam was slipping into civil war. Sometime in the late 1960s, Hun Sen left school and joined the domestic communist insurgency opposing Cambodia’s patrician ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Throughout the 1970s Hun Sen fought for those “Khmers Rouges,” or Red Khmers, as Sihanouk dubbed them. After taking power in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge established a network of brutal labor camps in the Cambodian countryside, which led to the death of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians — nearly a quarter of the population.

Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, the regime soon started devouring its own ranks in a paranoid search for spies and wreckers. In 1977, Hun Sen, then a mid-ranking commander in the army, defected to Vietnam to escape the purges. When the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 and installed a socialist government in its place, Hun Sen became foreign minister. Largely self-taught, he quickly evolved into a loyal and reliable ally of the Vietnamese, who continued to occupy the country through the late 1980s. On Jan. 14, 1985, at the age of 32, the Cambodian legislature appointed Hun Sen prime minister.

Since then, Hun Sen has played a long list of roles: apparatchik and reformer, strongman and statesman, demagogue and freewheeling free-marketeer. If his career has had one constant, however, it has been his ability to bend with the political wind.“He is a chess player,” said Lao Mong Hay, a human rights advocate, “and he thinks four or five moves ahead.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s first act of political escapism came with the collapse of communism. Throughout the 1980s, Hun Sen’s government, supported by Vietnam and the Soviet Union, fought a bitter Cold War proxy conflict against a Chinese- and U.S.-backed resistance coalition that included the Khmer Rouge. In October 1991, in the dying days of the Cold War, the warring factions signed the Paris Peace Agreements, which created the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), tasked with ending the civil war and holding democratic elections.

In the face of this challenge, Hun Sen urged the adoption of cosmetic political reforms. By aping the language of the new zeitgeist, he seemed to be arguing that his Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party could navigate the democratic transition and maintain its grip on power. And so, between 1989 and 1991, the party recalibrated itself for democratic politics: It abandoned Marx, released political prisoners, embraced “pluralism” and private property rights, and renamed itself the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hun Sen also saw through the democratic triumphalism of the age to the brittle political reality that lay beneath. Despite all the talk about bringing democracy to Cambodia, foreign governments had signed the Paris Peace Agreements to remove strategically unimportant Cambodia from the international agenda, not to deepen their entanglements. This became clear after the U.N.-organized elections of May 1993 — the first since the early 1970s — when the CPP came second to the royalist Funcinpec party led by Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. In response, Hun Sen and other CPP figures threatened violence and strong-armed their way into an equal share of power. In a wholly undemocratic arrangement, Hun Sen became “second” prime minister to Ranariddh’s “first.” The United Nations, having already declared the election a success, packed up and left.

In the years that followed, the two prime ministers vied for supremacy. The final reckoning came in July 1997, when security forces loyal to Hun Sen defeated Funcinpec’s military wing in street battles, murdering many of the prince’s key commanders and driving Ranariddh into exile in Bangkok. The prince returned to contest a new election in 1998. Yet this time, in a climate marked by violence and politically motivated killings, the CPP won, gaining 41.4 percent of the vote to Funcinpec’s 31.7 percent. The two parties again formed a coalition — but Hun Sen ruled alone.

Since then, Hun Sen has used guile and force to neutralize his remaining opponents and extend his control over the country’s courts, parliament, and armed forces. As a former soldier, Hun Sen has long understood power as a function of force and interests, a tool to be employed in the pursuit of political objectives; everything else — whether democratic principles or human rights — is window dressing. “Hun Sen is known for creating his own reality and then living in it,” said Gordon Longmuir, Canada’s ambassador to Cambodia in the mid-1990s.

Today, power in Cambodia resides not in the democratic institutions imported by the U.N., but in the channels of influence linking Hun Sen with the country’s powerful business and political elite. But Hun Sen has stopped short of doing away with democracy altogether. The government has maintained a mirage of pluralism in order to placate the foreign governments that still provide it with roughly $500 million in aid per year (around 14 percent of Cambodia’s national budget for 2015). To an international audience, Hun Sen is a skilled peddler of promises, fluent in donor-speak.

Domestically, he projects a different image: that of a wise and benevolent ruler, raining blessings on the people. His name is attached to thousands of schools bankrolled by friendly oligarchs; his personality finds its full expression in long, Castro-esque speeches in which he jokes, scolds, threatens political opponents, and recounts episodes from his childhood. With Hun Sen a son of the soil, his grasp of his people’s hopes and fears has allowed him to manipulate them effectively, portraying the CPP as the only thing standing between Cambodia and a return of the horrors of the past. In his first speech of 2015, Hun Sen brusquely declared that anyone opposing him is “an ally of the Pol Pot regime” — which is now long defunct. This blend of threats, charity, and strongman bombast has helped the CPP win the past four elections.

Hun Sen’s supporters point out that he has presided over an extended period of political stability and economic growth, rare commodities in Cambodia’s troubled history. Between 1998 and 2007, Cambodia’s GDP grew nearly 10 percent annually, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. But though these achievements are real, it is less clear whether his reign has any aim beyond its own perpetuation. This is the verdict of Sam Rainsy, the French-educated former investment banker who has been Hun Sen’s main political rival since the 1990s. “He is a genius, but a genius for himself,” Sam Rainsy said in an interview in March 2014. “His only achievement is that he has managed to cling on to power for so many years.”

After the 2013 election, however, the future for Hun Sen does appear slightly grimmer. The CPP’s majority plummeted from 90 to 68 of the parliament’s 123 seats, its worst electoral showing since 1998. There were many reasons for the turn against Hun Sen. One was demographic: Most Cambodians are too young to remember the Khmer Rouge.

But it is also stemmed from the widening gap between what the government promises and what it delivers. To maintain their loyalty, the government has allowed businessmen and the political elite to strip the country of its resources and fell its once-abundant forests. Little of the revenue has reached the poor, who have suffered land grabs, violence, and other abuses. On paper, Cambodia has seen poverty levels drop: By 2011 one out of every five Cambodians was living in poverty, compared to one in two in 2004. But many people still live on a knife edge: If the poverty line were raised by just 30 cents, the poverty rate would double, according to the World Bank.

After 2013’s election, Hun Sen promised change. Ministries have been reshuffled; reforms have been launched in education and environmental policy. At the same time, the government has ruled out any possibility of a new administration. After opposition supporters and unions took to the streets in December 2013 calling for Hun Sen’s resignation, security forces fired at striking garment workers on Phnom Penh’s outskirts on Jan. 3, 2014, leaving five dead. Politicians and protesters have since been hauled into court on spurious charges.

Hun Sen now faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career: to win back Cambodian voters without undermining the tycoons who have bankrolled his long reign. Does an aging strongman have the energy for another rebranding before elections due in 2018? Whatever happens, Cambodia’s singular leader has made it clear he isn’t going anywhere. After the January 2014 garment protest crackdown, Hun Sen showed no remorse for those killed, warning that he would meet further protests with even bigger demonstrations of his own. “If Hun Sen comes out to do something,” he said, “it’s not going to be small.”

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images


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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

30 Years of Hun Sen Violence, Repression

Donor Countries Should Promote Democracy, Human Rights

(New York) – The 30th anniversary of Hun Sen’s rule in Cambodia highlights the need for influential governments and donors to strengthen efforts for human rights and democratic reforms, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. January 14, 2015, marks 30 years since Hun Sen took office as prime minister on January 14, 1985.
Hun Sen is now the sixth-longest serving political leader in the world, just behind Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and ahead of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
“For three decades, Hun Sen has repeatedly used political violence, repression, and corruption to remain in power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director and author of the report. “Cambodia urgently needs reforms so that its people can finally exercise their basic human rights without fear of arrest, torture, and execution. The role of international donors is crucial in making this happen.”
The 67-page report, “30 Years of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia,” chronicles Hun Sen’s career from being a Khmer Rouge commander in the 1970s to his present role as prime minister and head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The report details the violence, repression, and corruption that have characterized his rule under successive governments since 1985.

Hun Sen has ruled through violence and fear. He has often described politics as a struggle to the death between him and all those who dare to defy him. For example, on June 18, 2005, he warned political opponents whom he accused of being “rebels” that “they should prepare coffins and say their wills to their wives.” This occurred shortly after he declared that Cambodia’s former king, Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated to express his opposition to Hun Sen’s method of governing, would be better off dead.

In a speech on August 5, 2009, he mimicked the triggering of a gun while warning critics not to use the word “dictatorship” to describe his rule. On January 20, 2011, responding to the suggestion that he should be worried about the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia at the time of the “Arab Spring,” Hun Sen lashed out: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”
Just after his Cambodian People’s Party suffered major electoral setbacks in the National Assembly elections of July 28, 2013, despite systematic fraud and widespread election irregularities orchestrated by his government, he proclaimed that only “death or incapacitation to the point of being unable to work” could unseat him from the summit of power.
“Although in recent decades he has allowed limited space for political opposition and civil society, the patina of openness has concealed an underlying reality of repression, and his government has been quick to stifle those who pose a threat to his rule,” Adams said.
Human Rights Watch examined Hun Sen’s human rights record during various Cambodian governments since 1979, and in particular the current Royal Government of Cambodia, which has been in place for more than 20 years. Since Hun Sen maneuvered to stay in office after rejecting the results of a United Nations-administered election in 1993, he and the CPP have remained in power by manipulating the elections held every five years since.
The report is based on materials in Khmer, English, Vietnamese, and Chinese, including official and other Cambodian documents; interviews with Cambodian officials and other Cambodians; interviews with journalists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations; and UN records, foreign government reports, and Cambodian court records.
The report describes:
  • Hun Sen’s early life in Kampong Cham province;
  • His decision to join the Khmer Rouge after the ouster of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970;
  • His role as a Khmer Rouge commander in the 1970s in areas where crimes against humanity were committed;
  • His responsibility in the 1980s as prime minister for a notorious forced labor program and systematic imprisonment of dissidents, and for death squads during the UN peacekeeping operation in 1992-93;
  • The role of his personal bodyguard unit in the deadly March 30, 1997 grenade attack on opposition leader Sam Rainsy;
  • His bloody coup of July 5-6, 1997, and its aftermath, in which more than 100 mostly royalist opposition party members were summarily executed; and
  • The repression and corruption of the past decade during which political and social activists, trade union leaders, and journalists have been killed in connection with their opposition to CPP policies and practices.
In recent years, a government-generated land crisis affecting the urban and rural poor has adversely affected hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, while Hun Sen has openly obstructed accountability for international crimes perpetrated in 1975-1979 by the Khmer Rouge, relying on his control of a Cambodian judiciary that also ensures continuing impunity for abuses.
Human Rights Watch called on influential governments and donors to end their passive response to these decades of rights abuses, repression, and massive corruption, and to make a renewed commitment to support Cambodians who struggle for free and fair elections, the rule of law, an end to corruption and land grabs, and respect for basic rights such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
“After 30 years of experience, there is no reason to believe that Hun Sen will wake up one day and decide to govern Cambodia in a more open, inclusive, tolerant, and rights-respecting manner,” Adams said. “The international community should begin listening to those Cambodians who have increasingly demanded the protection and promotion of their basic human rights.”


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Friday, September 26, 2014

Gateway to Cambodia: The Mysterious Couple Who Bring Investments In To Cambodia

Megha Bahree Contributor

Lao Meng Khin and Yeay Phu routinely bring in foreign investment–mainly Chinese–to their Cambodian resource plays. Typically, one of their companies will do a joint venture in which the pair are the local face and make relevant introductions, and the Chinese partners put down a big chunk of cash.

Some projects have gone forward, often with local protests, and others are at an uncertain stage. That’s how Britain’s Global Witness group sees it. It says three of the Pheapimex “economic land concessions” are joint ventures with China’s Wuzhishan Group–which in turn has a capital source out of Hong Kong — a nd Kong Triv, another tycoon, who is a senator for the prime minister’s party. Skirmishes with locals at these sites go back at least ten years.

Lao Meng Khin with wife Yeay Phu. (credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Pheapimex has engaged in illegal logging, both inside and outside its concessions, with military complicity, according to Global Witness. (When these charges were first aired a decade ago, Hun Sen publicly attacked the report, telling journalists that “Global Witness has lied before, and today they are lying again.”)

Pheapimex has a range of interests beyond forests. These include salt iodization, over which the government granted it a monopoly, iron ore extraction, bamboo cultivation, pharmaceutical importation and hotel construction.

Another company Lao and Yeay set up, Cambodia International Investment Development Group (CIIDG), commenced a joint venture in 2010 with Chinese firm Jiangsu Taihu International for a 1,113-hectare special economic zone near Sihanoukville. It claimed that the two companies would spend $1 billion to develop the area. Under Cambodian law, companies developing SEZs are granted a nine-year tax holiday, as well as exemptions on VAT and import and export duties. Part of that SEZ is up and running with 15 companies operating there, according to its website.

One of the investor sin Jiangsu Taihu is Zhao Yaoting, No. 230 on the latest FORBES CHINA rich list, with an estimated $840 million.

CIIDG announced further ventures with the now troubled Chinese partner Erdos Hongjun to set up a coal plant and to mine for bauxite, as well as another coal plant with a Malaysian company.

Whatever the status of these and other projects, the Cambodian government, at least, is appreciative: In 2007 Hun Sen presented Yeay Phu with the Moha Sereiwath medal–a decoration reserved for individuals who’ve made a particularly generous contribution to Cambodia’s development.

(With inputs from Heng Shao.)

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In Cambodia, A Close Friendship With The PM Leads To Vast Wealth For One Power Couple

Megha Bahree Contributor
I write about business and development in India and its neighborhood.

In summer 2013 Pal Liv, a farmer in Cambodia’s Pursat Province, 140 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh, watched as maybe ten men came on tractors and pulled up the bananas, rice, beans and corn he had planted. A larger contingent, some armed and others with badges, supervised the destruction. Nearly half his 3.5 hectares was seized. By Pal’s telling, it wasn’t the first time that his parcel and his living had been carved up–and by the Pheapimex Group, a company with powerful owners and connections.

A similar thing had happened three years before, he says. That time the men had moved in on what Pal says were 10 hectares belonging to him. His crops were surrounded by what he describes as a forest that he and his family tapped for resins and fruits. The company logged the trees for timber.

Farmer Pal Liv, seen with his grandchildren, is no longer able to make ends meet, his land carved up by Pheapimex. (credit:© Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for Forbes)
Pal, 55, has tried to scramble back, as he also did after the Khmer Rouge took his original family homestead in the late 1970s. Land rights in the country have been in flux since. Following his first brush with Pheapimex, in a period when the Cambodian government was under pressure to respect customary possessions, he was able to get his title to the 3.5 hectares. Now that’s been shaved to 2, and he can’t make ends meet.

Cambodia, one of the poorest nations in Asia, holds potentially rich payoffs for the well-placed. In the past decade it’s seemingly moved to embrace a market economy and averaged GDP growth of 7.9% from 2000 to 2013, driven predominantly by the textile and tourism sectors. (While agriculture’s contribution to growth has fallen over the last two decades, it’s still the main source of livelihood in rural areas.)

Officially a multiparty democracy, in reality the country remains a one-party state dominated by the Cambodian Peoples Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a recast Khmer Rouge official in power since 1985. The open doors to new investment during his reign have yielded the most access to a coterie of cronies of his and his wife, Bun Rany. Two of these are Senator Lao Meng Khin and his equally powerful wife, Choeung Sopheap, better known as Yeay Phu. They own Pheapimex and other firms active elsewhere in the nation.

Bun Rany and Yeay Phu are friends, often traveling together and serving on the board of the Cambodian Red Cross. The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh in a 2007 cable titled Cambodia’s Top Ten Tycoons–released by WikiLeaks–explained how the prime minister bridged political and private sectors, and maintained a pretense of civil society, by cultivating relationships with the country’s most prominent tycoons.

“These business leaders contribute money to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP), and Hun Sen can call on them to fund charities and public works projects, and to attract foreign investment, achievements for which the CPP can claim credit,” the cable said. “In return the business tycoons enjoy the added credibility and legitimacy of having the prime minister’s support.

These symbiotic relationships illustrate the networks of business tycoons, political figures and government officials that have formed in Cambodia, which reinforce the culture of impunity and limit progress on reforms such as Hun Sen’s self-declared war on corruption.’ ”

The cable called Lao and Yeay Phu “
one of the most politically and economically connected couples in the country (after Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, and Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and his wife).” Lao Meng Khin has been a CPP senator since 2006.

In the murky world of Cambodian business, not much is known–even by Global Witness, a British nonprofit that has been monitoring the activity–about the status of the various projects the couple has been linked with over the years, including a couple of coal-fired power plants, a hydropower plant and a bauxite mine. Along the way, however, the pair’s efforts have been a magnet for Chinese capital (see box, opposite).

Farmland in Pursat Province confiscated by Pheapimex, 140 miles north of Phnom Penh. (credit: © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom for Forbes)
Cambodia lacks transparency on such investments. What is known, says Global Witness, is that through Pheapimex and the various logging and land concessions it’s chalked up over the years, the owners control about 7% of Cambodia’s total land area–despite a law aimed at restricting any individual’s property to 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres). While the forest concessions are inactive because of a government decree banning logging, the pair remain in possession, and farmers like Pal must battle to keep what they can.

“There is growing public anger over the means by which both the government and private companies are forcing existing residents off the land,” says U.K. risk analysis firm Maplecroft in a report. “There have also been reports of the government employing the military to conduct forced evictions. Affected populations are often inadequately compensated.”

One doesn’t have to go beyond the Cambodian capital to see this play out in an area called Boeung Kak Lake. Once the largest body of water in the city and a scenic spot for villagers, it also served as a main drainage basin for managing Cambodia’s intense monsoons. The government leased the 133-hectare area in 2007 for 99 years to Shukaku, another company owned by Lao and Yeay, for $79 million, or $0.60 a square meter. In 2011 the government approved their plans to build luxury hotels, condos, shopping malls, a hospital, a school and residential and commercial buildings at a cost of $2 billion.

Since then the lake has been mostly filled with sand, and three-quarters of the 4,000 families living around it are gone, evicted, their houses razed or inundated with mud, and drainage in the area blocked–all amid repeated clashes with the police and military.

Things came to a boil in April 2011 when several residents, including two children, were manhandled by security forces in front of a Phnom Penh municipal building as they attempted to press authorities to stop pumping sand into the lake and to reach a settlement, says the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, an NGO in the capital. Nine women were arrested and forced to sign confessions admitting provocation and responsibility for the violence, the group says. (They were released a day later.)

Phan Chhunreth was one of them. She and her extended family of 12 are remaining holdouts. They bought a house in a Boeung Kak Lake village in 1993. Phan, 55, runs a small convenience store, while her husband ferries passengers on a motorbike. They rent out a room in their house for additional income. Phan doesn’t have a title to her house, like many in the country. (Some have not been recovered since the Khmer Rouge days.) Dressed simply on an August day, she says she is still waiting for the title the government promised her in 2005. “I’ve been beaten, and I’ve been to jail,” she says. “The government development policy does not provide justice and equality for all.”

Meantime, Shukaku’s grand plans have become dormant as a prominent investor in its Chinese partner, Inner Mongolia Erdos Hung Jun Investment, is reportedly under investigation in China. (That would be Chen Jihong of Denzheng Resources, who appeared on the 2010 FORBES CHINA rich list at $500 million.) Though the probe is not believed to be related to the Phnom Penh project, the contentious area has been given over mostly to wild grass, at the far end of which lies the prime minister’s office and newer towers in the capital’s skyline.

Boeung Kak Lake, once the largest body of water in Phnom Penh, is mostly filled in with sand as part of a stalled development project (the prime minister’s office and new towers are in the background). (credit:Omar Havana/Getty Images)

Boeung Kak Lake was also at the heart of a 2011 decision by the World Bank to place a moratorium on loans to Cambodia until the 779 families still living there were adequately compensated. The accompanying global media glare shined a rare light on the owners of Boeung Kak Lake and their relationship with the government. Two days later, on Aug. 11, 2011, Hun Sen authorized that 12.44 hectares of land within the Boeung Kak development area be allocated to the remaining families for onsite housing on plots with legal ownership. Most of those families, like Phan’s, are still waiting for their land, and as of last January the World Bank held off plans to resume lending.

Will Lao Meng Khin or Yeay Phu comment? Neither seems to have an office number or business Web address. When FORBES ASIA approached their mansion in Phnom Penh, a staff member laughed and said, “No journalists,” before quickly retreating and shutting an ornate brown-and-gold gate. The house is on a tree-lined street in a posh neighborhood, and military police guard it around the clock.

Meanwhile, away from even the meager protection that some watchful media are able to provide the landless in Phnom Penh, Pal Liv in Pursat, his ribs visible above the blue shorts, assesses his plight. “Earlier we had enough rice for everyone to eat, and we could buy new clothes for the children,” he says. The land yielded enough vegetables for his family and often extra to sell. As the skies opened up to a brief shower, a daughter and five grandchildren huddled in the doorway of the tiny one-room hut built with hay and supported on stilts, and he went on: “But ever since I’ve lost the land to the company, I don’t earn enough to send my grandchildren to school or to buy new clothes for them. There is no spare money, and we have run through our savings.”

Pheapimex cultivates cassava and potatoes on the logged land on the horizon. Pal’s wife and another daughter and son-in-law work those fields from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. but get paid only if they meet the target that has been set for the day, says Pal. Once his wife was jammed with several other workers in a mini-truck transporting them to a farther-off field when it overturned. She broke her arm, and the company gave her $50 to have it taken care of. It was not set properly, and her wrist juts out awkwardly.

It is far from the only casualty of Cambodia’s economic rush that needs a better fix.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia's shocking trade

On the margins of the sex industry, an ugly market in virginity has emerged in Cambodia in which rich and powerful men coerce desperate mothers into selling their daughters' innocence

Abigail Haworth - TheGuardian
The Observer, Saturday 5 July 2014

Vannith Uy is the owner of what translates from Khmer as a "mobile nail salon", although the word salon is a stretch. It's a bicycle with a plastic crate on the back filled with hand lotions and nail polishes. Uy, 42, rides it around her Phnom Penh neighbourhood – a tangle of alleys near the river where the residents' domestic lives spill out of their open front doors – until a customer flags her down. She performs a manicure or pedicure on the spot, sitting on a plastic stool by the side of the street.

Dara Keo, in the room she rents with her mother and sister in a Phnom Penh slum. Through a broker, her mother sold Dara's virginity when Dara was only 12 Photograph: Will Baxter

Three years ago, when she arrived from the countryside, Uy had a different plan. She wanted to open a hair and beauty salon on proper premises in the Cambodian capital. "But my family could find only dirty jobs," she says. "I wanted a place where my daughter and I could work together." So Uy did something she describes as her "only choice": she sold her 18-year-old daughter Chamnan's virginity to a wealthy local man for £900.

The man was a police general who frequented the beer garden where Uy worked as a kitchen help, she says. He bought Chamnan for six days and nights. He installed her in a hotel room on Phnom Penh's outskirts and visited her many times to have sex. She was allowed to call her mother once a day. By the third day, Uy recalls, Chamnan was so weak and distressed that the man summoned a doctor on his payroll to give her painkillers and a vitamin shot "so she had the strength to keep going until the end of the week".

Uy received cash payment in full, but her planned salon never materialised. The money that had represented a life-changing sum – equivalent to around five years' salary in her home village in Kandal province – soon trickled away. After she'd paid her sick husband's medical bills, given cash to her ageing parents and bought Chamnan a gold necklace to "raise her spirits", there wasn't much left. Uy had greatly underestimated the task of clawing her way out of hardship; her stricken expression as she talks suggests she also miscalculated the personal costs of selling her daughter's body to try.

Where to begin unravelling the shadowy, painful layers of Uy and Chamnan's story? It is not straightforward. Often overlooked by more dramatic tales of enslavement in brothels, the trade in virgins is one of the most endemic forms of sexual exploitation in Cambodia. It is a market sustained by severe poverty and ingrained gender inequality. Its clients are influential Cambodian men and other members of Asia's elite who enjoy total impunity from a corrupt justice system. Most misunderstood of all, many of those involved in the transactions are not hardcore criminals. They are mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours.

Cambodia is far FROM the only place where women and girls are treated as commodities. But in this country of 15 million people, the demand for virgins is big business that thrives due to cultural myth and other local factors. "Many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness," says Chhiv Kek Pung, president of Cambodia's leading human rights organisation, Licadho. "There's a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on here, and the rule of law is very weak."

The belief that sex with virgins increases male vigour has long held sway among powerful men in Asia, including Chairman Mao and North Korea's Kim dynasty. "Unlike sex- tourist paedophiles who seek out children under 10 years old, local men don't care so much about a virgin's age – only her beauty and the fact she's pure," says Pung. Parents who sell their daughters' virginity have little concept of child rights. "They regard their offspring as their property."

Based on Licadho's work inside communities, Pung estimates that "many thousands" of virgins aged between 13 and 18 are sold every year. As well as rich Cambodians, men from countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand are regular buyers, too. "They travel here on business and have everything prearranged by brokers: a five-star hotel, a few rounds of golf and a night or two with a virgin," says Eric Meldrum, a former police detective from the UK who now works as an anti-exploitation consultant in Phnom Penh.

The lack of hard figures is partly due to the trade's secrecy, Meldrum adds. Brokers operate underground, changing tactics and locations often. Plus the fact that close relatives are often involved means it rarely fits into strict definitions of sex trafficking – when people are tricked or abducted and sold into open-ended slavery – so it doesn't show up in those statistics either.

But there's another reason the trade is virtually invisible. Says Licadho's Pung: "In terms of activism, few organisations highlight virgin buying even though it's a devastating abuse of young women." It's seen as difficult to generate sympathy for the issue among foreign aid donors, she explains, so many NGOs sidestep the issue. (Licadho is one of the exceptions.) "The fear is that, while people might feel sorry for the girls, they'd be too outraged about parents selling their daughters to open their wallets."

That moral complexities are sometimes ignored by those purporting to help was sensationally underscored in late May. Somaly Mam, a self-styled former sex slave and Cambodia's most famous anti-trafficking campaigner, was forced to resign in disgrace from the US-based foundation that bears her name. The glamorous Mam boasted Hollywood actor Susan Sarandon and Facebook dynamo Sheryl Sandberg among her top supporters. She was feted widely in the media. On the back of heartbreaking stories about herself and Cambodian women under her wing, she raised millions of dollars at glitzy New York galas. Her downfall came after an investigation by a Cambodia Daily reporter revealed that significant parts of the stories she told were untrue.

One young woman whom Mam claimed to have rescued from a brothel after a vicious pimp gouged out her right eye had actually lost the eye, it emerged, as the result of a facial tumour. Mam's own story of woe – that she was orphaned and sold to a brothel at the age of 12 – was also dismantled.

The awful irony of Mam's rapid fall is that she didn't need to lie. Sex trafficking and exploitation exist in Cambodia, just often in less made-for-TV ways than her tragic tales suggested. (Brothels in red-light areas housing enslaved child prostitutes, for example, have been almost wiped out over the past decade.) Dishonesty aside, the greatest pitfall of her fraudulence was not so much that it misrepresented the scale of the problem. It was that it misrepresented the solutions. In promoting herself – and allowing others to do it for her – as a survivor single-handedly rescuing girls from evil predators, she made finding answers seem all too easy.

"People respond to emotional stories and they hand over their money without understanding underlying causes or long-term solutions," says Sébastien Marot, the director of Friends International, an NGO based in Phnom Penh that works with vulnerable children. But in the case of the virgin trade, he says, progress is hard. Pung agrees. "When you talk to people about this, there's a view that there are plenty of poor people in the world who don't sell their daughters, so it can't be blamed on poverty or desperation. But there are many interwoven social factors. You have to look at the whole picture."

At Vannith Uy's HOME, a dark, wide room that she rents for £10 a week at the back of a grander house, she tells me about her struggle to find work when she first arrived in Phnom Penh. Her husband had a back injury and she had two children, Chamnan and a younger son, to support. The capital overflows with rural migrants, all competing for the same menial jobs. "The only work I could find was as a kitchen help in a beer garden. I found Chamnan a job serving ice at the same place."

Hostesses at a Phnom Penh beer garden. The beer gardens are popular with men looking for virgins. There is no suggestion that these women have been sold Photograph: Will Baxter

Beer gardens are fairy-lit outdoor pubs where local men go to relax after work. In the evenings all over Phnom Penh, the sound of plaintive Khmer love songs leaks into the darkness, feedback and all, from their giant speakers. The gardens employ miniskirted young women to sell competing brands of Cambodian beer or to work as hostesses and sing karaoke. The décor at one popular place is a disconcerting mix of beer posters and Pooh Bear murals.

Uy hated the atmosphere, which she says became more drunken and predatory as the night wore on. "Chamnan is pretty and all the men loved her. They made comments about her body." While prostitution isn't openly advertised, many of the hostesses and beer girls supplement their income by selling sex to customers after hours. Brokers also frequent the gardens, touting for men who want to buy virgins or have other "special requests", which they arrange to take place at discreet locations.

Uy says the thought of selling Chamnan's virginity hadn't occurred to her until the opportunity arose. "A tall customer in his 50s noticed Chamnan. He came alone and asked her to sit beside him. One evening he asked me if she was a virgin, and said he wanted to buy her." She found out before the sale took place that he was an off-duty police general. Uy eventually agreed because, in her mind, she saw it as a chance to save Chamnan from becoming drawn into regular sex work. "It was only a matter of time if we stayed at the beer garden. All the girls who worked there seemed to do it eventually."

Economic opportunities are lacking for everyone in Cambodia, where three-quarters of the population lives below or just above the poverty line. But they are especially dire for women, who earn an average of only 27 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to the Asian Development Bank. Apart from working in the fields, the vast garment industry is the biggest source of female employment. But wages are so pitiful at around £60 per month that workers are currently risking their lives in protests to fight for more. Working in a beer garden or karaoke bar and doing sex work on the side can bring in double that, and some women see it as their best option.

But sex work is not only criminalised under the law, leaving those who do it by choice (or lack of it) vulnerable to official abuse, it also brings deep social shame. Expectations of female chastity in Cambodia are enshrined in a code of duty and obedience known as chbab srey, or "women's law". "There's a national saying that men are like gold and women are like cloth," says Tong Soprach, an academic researcher into the sexual practices of Cambodia's youth. "If you drop gold in the dirt, it washes clean and still shines. If you drop cloth, the stain never comes out."

This absurd double standard is another reason virginity is so valued, of course. Men typically pay between £600 and £3,000 to buy a virgin for up to a week, depending on their budget and the girl's beauty. Uy didn't know the going rates, but she believed the offer of £900 for Chamnan would be enough to change their fate. "I explained my idea to Chamnan. She wasn't happy about going with the man, but she told me she understood."

In fact, chbab srey also dictates that women must obey and help their parents, a rule that is almost universally followed. It would have been difficult for Chamnan to refuse. "When she came home afterwards, I knew she was sad, but we didn't speak about it. We both felt it was better to forget it ever happened." Uy took a better-not-to-know approach with her husband, too. To preserve Chamnan's virtue in his eyes, she told him she had saved up the money from beer garden tips.

I asked Uy if I could meet Chamnan, who is now 22, but it wasn't possible. With the little money left over from her ordeal, she had returned to Kandal province and found a job in a government garment factory making underwear. Does she resent that Uy's grand plan didn't materialise? "I don't think so. She has a steady boyfriend now and hopes to marry him. She has a better life." But then, as a mother, Uy probably would think that.

Cambodian parents love their children as much as anyone, says Nget Thy, director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights. But it's difficult to overstate how many problems exist in some communities. "Any misfortune, from losing a family member to losing a game of cards, can push people below the level they need to eat," he says. "Attitudes that children exist for their parents' benefit, and that women exist for men's benefit, are very, very wrong and need addressing urgently. But it's the men who buy virgins who are the criminals."

At a Phnom Penh riverside slum I meet Dara Keo. Dara's mother Rotana sold her virginity when she just 12 years old, after her father died leaving gambling debts. The slum's stilted shacks are home to around 1,000 people, many of whom recycle rubbish as their only source of income. Addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling is part of daily life. Dara, who is now 18, says almost every teenage girl there is sold for her virginity, usually in deals made with their parents by female neighbours who work as brokers. "Everyone knows it happens but nobody talks about it openly."

Dara's account, and those of other young women I speak to in the slum, reveal the trade's dehumanising efficiency. "After my mother sold me for $500 (£300), the broker took me to a doctor to have my virginity checked and a blood test for HIV," says Dara. "There were other girls there. We were made to take off our clothes and stand in a line until it was our turn to be examined." (Buyers insist on proof of virginity to make sure they are not being tricked.)

Then she was taken to meet her buyer in an exclusive hotel room. The man, who was wearing "a dark suit and a gold watch", didn't speak or look at her at all, Dara says. "He pinned me down on the bed, unzipped his trousers and forced himself into me. The pain was very great." Over the next seven days, he came to the hotel to have sex with her two or three times a day. He didn't use a condom. "A few times he asked if he was hurting me. When I told him yes, he used even more force."

I ask about the man's identity. Dara gives me the name of a Cambodian politician who is still in office. It is impossible for her to reveal his name publicly.

By the time she was allowed to return home her vagina was torn and bruised. Her mother took her to a local doctor, who gave her painkillers and told her that her injuries would "heal on their own".

A senior police officer who agrees to speak anonymously says prominent men like politicians do not fear being caught because they know the police won't act. "If you try to enforce the law with these men, you will have a big problem," the officer says, dressed in civilian clothes in a Phnom Penh coffee shop. "I have been threatened, and some of my colleagues working on this issue have had their jobs threatened."

He relates how he has been warned by "people high up" not to pursue cases of virgin buying (and also rape) because "having sex is human nature" and such issues were "not serious".

He mentions a case last year of a senior military officer who was diagnosed with cancer and given one year to live. His wife agreed to let the man use more than £1m of their family money to "enjoy himself" before he died. "We knew he was buying a new virgin every week, but there was nothing we could do," says the policeman. (The man died recently.)

Men in power or big business "who have a good relationship with each other" are the only people who can afford to buy virgins, he adds, so arresting perpetrators is blocked by corruption at the very top. Although all forms of buying and selling sex are illegal in Cambodia, not one Khmer man has ever been convicted of purchasing virgins.

During her year working at the beer garden, Uy saw firsthand how the country's male elite bought virgins with entitled ease. She saw more than 50 young women being purchased, "like they were delicious food". As well as the police general who bought Chamnan, she came to know some of the other buyers well. One was an ageing politician from the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). "Everybody loved him because he gave big tips."

She mentions the politician's name. He is someone whose name crops up repeatedly in relation to the virgin trade among journalists and activists in Cambodia. (It is not the same politician who bought Dara.) Uy said the man went further than purchasing virgins for his immediate pleasure – he "reserved" younger girls for the future. "He asked mothers to bring their underage daughters to the beer garden after-hours," she explains. "Then he chose the ones he liked, and gave their mothers some money every week to buy rice until the girls grew up." A mutual arrangement was made, she adds, that he would buy their virginity when they reached adolescence.

A slum area in Phnom Penh. Severe poverty and ingrained gender inequality fuel Cambodia's virgin trade Photograph: Heng Sinith/AP

I spoke to Mu Sochua, a former Minister of Women's Affairs in the CPP and now a leading light in the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). She has campaigned for years on the need to address corruption and poverty, and advance women's status. In recent months she has been braving the front line of garment workers' protests to support their demand for a livable wage. While "the rule of law is not on the agenda of the current government", she says bluntly, addressing sexual exploitation such as the virgin trade needs to be part of efforts to tackle gender inequality on all fronts. "We have to increase education about women's rights to change attitudes," she says. "We need to win public support for an effective rule of law that punishes those who buy sex, not those who sell it."

The old men of the CPP have been in power continuously for 30 years. Mu Sochua, along with many others, believes the most recent general election last year was rigged. "The Cambodian people have already voted for change, so that is hopeful," she says. When the regime finally dies, she hopes that iniquities such as the virgin trade will die with it.

But will it? Take the politician who gave big tips that Uy mentioned. It's such an open secret in Phnom Penh that he is a prolific buyer of virgins that a Cambodian journalist who knows him well offered to introduce me to him. He was sure the politician would talk if I agreed to quote him anonymously.

The journalist quickly decided not to get involved. Even so, the moment suggested the lack of shame surrounding the practice and how much men like the politician must take their impunity for granted.

To protect the safety of the women cited in the article, some names have been changed.

Follow Abigail Haworth on Twitter at @AbiHaworth

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