Echoes of Sihanoukville Troubles in Cambodian Border Town

Workers compounds in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
Workers compounds in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
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Between two weeks to 20 days ago, a convoy of buses filled with foreign workers pulled up to casino compounds in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city, three separate groups of tuk-tuk and motodop drivers told reporters on Friday.

Not all the passengers stuck around; some were carried past the eastern border town and returned to Vietnam, they said.

But many were seen dropped off at Bavet’s expanding complex of casino worker-accommodations — where almost all compounds are surrounded by barbed wire, many windows are secured with metal bars or wire fencing, and rooms were last week teeming with clothes hung out to dry, room lights, foreign chatter, people looking out from narrow balconies and other signs of widespread occupancy.

Two of the tuk-tuk drivers said they knew well the arriving bus drivers, and were told the recent convoy of foreign workers had come from Sihanoukville.

Casinos and construction in Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)

Sihanoukville, a southern coastal city, is currently being subjected to police raids for human trafficking that have found detention, torture and thousands of undocumented foreign workers. For well over a year, foreign workers have been lured to Cambodia for jobs that turned out to be scamming people online, and were forced to pay thousands of dollars if they wanted to leave. In recent weeks, Cambodian police have finally begun to investigate foreign worker compounds for illegal businesses mixed in among casinos, and many Sihanoukville premises have emptied out.

But in Bavet on Friday, some large compounds appeared to be thriving, not emptying.

New Arrivals

Roughly 20 days ago, about four buses dropped off people outside the Crown casino at night, said a tuk-tuk driver as he drove reporters around the casino city.

Behind the Crown casino is a cluster of worker accommodations, and the driver said he had been hearing of escape attempts and people jumping off the buildings for some time. He had never been able to get into those compounds, he said, while declining to give his name because he usually waits for customers outside a casino and could face repercussions for talking about what he sees. A motodop driver, who also declined to be named, separately attested to the four buses arriving at Crown.

At another location, a group of about five tuk-tuk drivers said there was a wave of new arrivals around two weeks ago: 10 buses arriving at Bavet around 10 p.m.

One of the drivers in that group, who also declined to be named, said four to five buses had continued to arrive every night for a week or two, mostly stopping at the Moc Bai compound.

“We know the drivers. They tell us they’ve come from Sihanoukville,” the driver said, recalling hundreds of foreign workers arriving with luggage.

Satellite imagery shows that the development of worker camps has been ongoing for years in Bavet, with many buildings appearing in 2019 and the compounds further filling out afterward.

Map by Michael Dickison.

The complex known as “Moc Bai,” accessed through a private driveway next to the Moc Bai casino on the northern side of the main road, spans roughly 20 hectares and contains about 30 medium-rise residential buildings, based on satellite imagery and a visit to the site. Around 30 similar buildings are also seen behind the Crown casino to the south, in areas known as “Crown” and “Heng Heng.”

Locals know the worker camps by the names of casino companies, but it could not be confirmed whether they are owned by the same businesses. Moc Bai casino could not be reached through several phone numbers and email addresses linked to the business, while an administrative head for Crown would not answer whether the worker buildings were part of the casino, and hung up when asked if authorities had recently questioned the company about foreign workers.

Crown casino is linked to influential Cambodian tycoon Kok An, who has been linked to another scam compound in Sihanoukville. 

South of Crown and part of the “Heng Heng” strip of buildings is an under-construction site advertised online as Heng He Bavet housing, a company with indirect links to Sihanoukville and Pursat scam sites — as well as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew Hun To and logging tycoon Try Pheap.

One of Heng He Bavet’s directors is Chen Al Len, who is also a director at KB Hotel, the site of a scam compound formerly owned by late Crown FC president Rithy Samnang. Another Heng He Bavet director is Su Liangsheng, who is also a director at MDS Heng He Investment and Heng He Commercial Bank. Hun To is a director at the bank and Try Pheap is a director at MDS Heng He, which owns MDS Thmor Da SEZ, another reported scam compound.

The Moc Bai worker buildings are mostly nine-stories tall, and though they vary in shape and size are big enough to have around 100 rooms each. In the center of the complex are additionally about 14 100-meter-long rows of single-story prefab housing surrounded by barbed wire and chained gates. The housing areas were visibly inhabited.

The initial entrance to the complex is open, but inside there are guarded boom barriers that require visitors to show access cards to pass through. They house gated, parallel towns: barbers and salons, fruit shops and restaurants.

Around the entrance of Moc Bai, a woman peeled and packed jackfruit pieces into plastic packets to deliver to the locked-down area.

Signs of Trouble

On September 13, a Vietnamese man jumped off the second floor of a Bavet compound on the street between Moc Bai and New Venetian, trying to escape. Police would not say what exactly he was trying to flee — saying there was no “detention” — but ruled that he nevertheless died from the fall as a result.

Four days later, a group of more than 60 Vietnamese nationals ran out of the Moc Bai compound. One of them told VnExpress that he had been tricked three months prior into coming for work and wasn’t allowed to leave.

Moc Bai was also the site of a murder in July; Crown, meanwhile, saw a Vietnamese man die after falling from the eighth floor in May. Vietnamese, Indonesian and other nationals trapped in scam operations have been rescued from Bavet casino complexes after reaching out for help online.

Worker compounds in the ‘Moc Bai’ area of Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)
Worker compounds in the ‘Moc Bai’ area of Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)
Worker compounds in the ‘Moc Bai’ area of Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)
Worker compounds in the ‘Moc Bai’ area of Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)
Worker compounds are lit up at night in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)
Worker compounds are lit up at night in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Mech Dara/VOD)

Commune chief Sanh Sakhon said on Monday that around 30-40,000 Cambodians worked in the casino sector in Bavet, which had been growing since the Covid-19 pandemic eased. But he said he did not know how many foreign workers were present.

Bavet city police chief Em Sovannarith said police had inspected guesthouses for foreign workers in recent weeks, but the larger casino compounds were outside his jurisdiction.

Ou Sokhoeun, director of the Svay Rieng provincial labor department, would not say whether the casino compounds had recently been inspected. But the department checks once a year and responds to complaints, he said, adding that in the past it had been notified of a case of detention but could not remember the location.

The casinos give him monthly reports, and currently 2,800 foreign workers had work permits for jobs in Bavet, Sokhoeun said.

Deputy provincial governor Ros Parith referred questions about Moc Bai and Crown as well as new arrivals from Sihanoukville to the provincial police, but provincial police chief Pich Vireak hung up before those questions could be asked. Both said they were working on checking the immigration status of foreign workers. The Interior Ministry’s immigration department spokesman Keo Vanthan could not be reached on Tuesday.

In Sihanoukville, authorities have raided 10 compounds, finding 2,760 foreign workers. More than 1,600 are slated for deportation. And for now, the city has gone quiet after residents saw buses departing compounds.

City Expansion

Along Bavet’s main road last week, several casinos were in the process of either newly opening or reopening after a renovation. Some properties had red fabric over soon-to-be-unveiled signage alongside rows of new restaurants and shops, while active construction sites were spread across Bavet. The city is expanding, and not just with the latest arrivals from Sihanoukville.

Construction in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
Construction in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
A new casino in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
A new casino in Svay Rieng’s Bavet city on October 7, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)

Construction workers Suon Khim and Suth Tak came from Siem Reap to Bavet five years ago seeking work.

Khim, 27, said the past few months had seen several constructions completed and an apparent wave of new arrivals entering the new housing. She had just finished working at the site of new worker accommodations for the New Venetian casino, and moved into a shack behind the Moc Bai area.

“It supports us day by day, and to pay our microfinance loans,” Khim said, noting that her supervisors were Chinese.

Bavet seemed to be thriving for now, but it was hard to know if it would last, Khim added. “If Bavet has no work, maybe we will migrate to Thailand.”

Lin, 30, sold num banh chok Khmer noodles outside a construction site. She had started selling the noodles only a couple weeks ago after quitting a casino job where she worked translating Vietnamese, she said.

The casino job paid well — around $450 a month — but her supervisors cursed at her and insulted her, so she would rather have her own business, she said.

A Svay Rieng local, Lin said Bavet had been transformed in recent years as the casino sector expanded.

“Everything changed,” she said, pointing to the rise of new businesses — as well as crime. She appreciated that it was easier to earn a living, but the insecurity also concerned her.

“More well-being and more concern,” Lin said, declining to give her full name, saying she felt afraid that she could get in trouble for talking. “Every day I sell, and I don’t know when it will end.”

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