Government officials tried to shift blame, claim ignorance and accuse critics of not understanding the “technical” nature of cases when asked about foreigners being trafficked into online fraud operations in Cambodia.
Though officials appeared to acknowledge there are high rates of foreigners being trafficked into Cambodia, they also hit back at reporters reporting stories about the alleged sale of foreigners into online gambling and scam operations.
Chou Bun Eng, the permanent vice-chair of the national counter-trafficking committee, led a press conference on Friday in response to this year’s Trafficking in Persons report from the U.S. state department, which lowered Cambodia’s ranking to the lowest “Tier 3,” citing sex trafficking, labor trafficking and the rise of the online gambling and scam industry.
She began the conference by explaining that such organized crime is difficult to track and act on as it is constantly shifting in nature.
“What we have seen is that even with what we have done, there have still been loopholes so that it continues to happen,” she said. “As I have explained, the perpetrator is not standing still and they always keep waiting to see any holes that they can go into and do it so that we need to chase them.”
She added that the government needs cooperation, and turned to reporters in the room to ask them to share information with officials instead of publishing it.
“Brother and sister reporters, if you know any story or issue that occurs anywhere, you [should] hand the information [to us] and we will open it widely,” she said. “In short we can say that two ears cannot hear everything so please when there is any story, please help inform us so that we can find all means to respond.”
Bun Eng also cited some statistics of human trafficking cases addressed by the government, without clarifying the kind of trafficking involved in these cases and if the perpetrators were taken to court. According to Bun Eng, the government cracked down on 359 cases of human trafficking in 2021, up from 155 cases in 2019, while the number of court cases filed increased from 193 in 2019 to 538 in 2021.
“We are very happy and very proud so we thought that in 2021 and early 2022, we would get a good evaluation because we have worked hard,” she said.
Bun Eng asked anti-trafficking NGOs to say what they thought of the U.S.’s evaluation of trafficking in Cambodia, and none would comment.
NGOs that work in anti-trafficking like International Justice Mission, Eriks Development Partner and Chab Dai attended the meeting.
She later added that the government was “shocked” by Cambodia’s Tier 3 ranking by the U.S., echoing her criticisms shortly after the Trafficking in Persons report was released.
She said she also felt reassured that five countries in Asean received a “Tier 3” ranking on the trafficking report, and claimed the U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy brushed off Cambodia’s declining ranking.
“It is like a student’s exam, a student wants to pass but they fail whether they suffer or not…his excellency the U.S. ambassador says that it is a natural thing in regard to the suffering, and without suffering we would not try harder,” Bun Eng said.
During her speech, Bun Eng did not specifically acknowledge the kind of work workers were being made to do in Cambodia but said it had to do with work online.
VOD has spoken to dozens of victims at scam operations who said they would sell potential customers fake online investment schemes, cryptocurrency scams and pig butchering operations.
“They can contact each other through just online…to find perpetrators online,” she said, seeming to reference how people are sold via Telegram chats and other messaging platforms.
But she claimed they can’t easily crack down on such online trade because the “server is not in Cambodia.”
Bun Eng then said that the country was working on a plan to crack down upon human trafficking in the country, saying that they would not “beat the grass to scare the snake” but would come up with a plan to investigate the perpetrators.
But she simultaneously downplayed the severity of some trafficking victims’ claims, saying that many individuals weren’t forcibly detained — a common refrain from law enforcement.
“With all these cases, I would like to inform you that it is not that all cases were human trafficking, and we have conducted the crackdown on many cases with cooperation from relevant countries, but it does not make all the cases human trafficking because there are competent [authorities] that evaluate as to what kind of crimes,” she said.
When asked why other countries in the region were reporting that their citizens were trafficked to Cambodia, she suggested other countries were exaggerating such accounts.
She then seemed to give an example of a technical “loophole” where if only 10% of a country’s nationals returned home after visiting Cambodia then the foreign country would classify the rest as trafficked. “So, such accusations are groundless and not technical,” she said.
A reporter also asked if there was any investigation into cases of crime and trafficking in Sihanoukville, and Yok Sokha, deputy general of the National Police, spoke up to defer the question.
“When we do not see the results, it’s because it is in the process of the investigation so all of you can understand that [we] cannot release information, so wait and see the successful result and we will inform [you] later.”
Reporters also asked if the Labor Ministry was investigating work practices at compounds where foreign workers were reporting abusive labor practices and forced detention. Reporters specified locations like Sihanoukville’s Chinatown and Crown casino compounds and Moc Bai casino in Svay Rieng province.
The police official urged Hou Vudthy, a secretary of state for the Labor Ministry, to respond but he would not comment.
A VOD reporter also asked why he was detained for trying to take pictures from a public street of an April rescue operation of more than 200 Vietnamese citizens from a compound known as Jin Gang in Sihanoukville’s Buon commune. Bun Eng claimed the reporter’s detention was in the name of “victims’ rights.”
“You cannot just take pictures, regardless whether they are perpetrator or victim with blurred [identities], and some media have done and violated human rights,” she said, giving additional comments questioning accounts from trafficked victims.
“Do not think the one who says that they are victims [are so], and I want to say that sometimes it is a trick, a dog eats dog [scenario] and they set up them. Do not trust your conclusion, please trust the law.”