How a midnight crusader became a daylight disruptor with grand plans to conquer Cambodia’s crippling culture of sex trafficking and child labor.
Afternoon is fading fast and Nget Thy is waiting for the Neak Loeung Ferry to cross the Mekong River in southern Cambodia. His destination is a transit center near the Vietnam border, where his small staff rescues and shelters children from Cambodia who’ve been taken from their homes and sent across the border to work as beggars.
These are young children whose parents cut off a finger or poke out an eye to make the little ones appear more sympathetic to wealthy foreigners – and thus more profitable beggars. Sometimes the children are sold for sex.
“It’s their parents who send them to beg,” Thy says. “Or their parents give them to a broker, who takes them across the border and makes them beg.”
Bespectacled and Zen-like in his calm, thirty-nine-year-old Thy has been a pauper, a homeless student, the de-facto manager of an orphanage, and a brothel-raider who disguised himself as a customer in order to rescue underage girls from forced prostitution. Today he’s executive director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CCPCRP) – a group dedicated to rescuing children from trafficking, abuse and slavery.
“Most families know what’s happening when they send their children to Vietnam,” Thy says, as his air-conditioned SUV idles amidst a stew of rusty old Toyotas, overstuffed minivans, moto bikes and ox-drawn wagons. “But they have no money, and if they don’t do it their families will starve.”
Thy’s desperate younger years in the aftermath of Cambodia’s bloody revolution instilled in him a steely survival and quiet cunning that prepared him for this work. In a white button-down and loafers, he’s the image of his country’s tiny middle class as he counts out Cambodian riel to pay for our ferry crossing; nothing about his image suggests that he’s been rescuing girls from the bowels of destitution here for more than twenty years.
“We have to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and trafficking,” he says. “We have to work with both sides – prevention and protection.”
In subsistence-level Cambodia, where the average family earns less than $800 a year and most people live in rural one-room shacks with no plumbing, electricity or indoor kitchens, a trafficked child might bring a family $100 or $200 a month. Then again, the child may leave home with a broker and disappear into the diaspora of child slavery, never to be seen again – and earn the family nothing.
More than 500 trafficked children passed through CCPCR’s border station last year. They arrive scared, dirty, covered in sores, skinny and traumatized. Thy’s staff gives them medical treatment, counseling and the possibility for rehabilitation. Some are transitioned to one of CCPCR’s long-term shelters. Others are given some family counseling and sent home, where too often their parents send them out to beg again. One million Cambodian children are estimated to be drowning in this cycle of poverty, abuse and trafficking.
* * *
Under the scorching sun near the ferry gates, children and women aged beyond their years thread through the line of waiting vehicles pedaling sugarcane and freshly sliced papaya and pineapple. Their heads and faces are covered in faded scarves, their clothing a potpourri of old T-shirts and baggy pajamas.
Thy has a cold. He’s sucking on a throat lozenge when a toothless woman in dirty, tattered pink pajamas spots the single white woman in the assemblage (me) and splays both palms and her face against the passenger window, mewling for money.
“Don’t give her anything,” Thy says stiffly. “If you do, she’ll only come back every day and beg again.”
It’s hard to imagine the level of destitution in this impoverished country of fourteen million, where the government does almost nothing to help.
One of the girls Thy rescued last year had been sold for the price of a duck.
Another cheerful twelve-year-old is living in CCPCR’s shelter in Phnom Penh because her father was raping her little sister. The girl is missing a piece of her finger, and her father is in jail now – not for raping a minor, but for murdering his wife. A third girl in the shelter has a face stitched up like a Raggedy Ann doll – at ten years old she was living as a slave, she had a huge tumor on her face and she was pregnant. Another lived above a brothel, where she worked so she wouldn’t starve.
Today these girls live safely behind CCPCR’s thick walls in a spacious compound with a sunny garden, breezy dining area, classroom, library and dormitory. A housemother, cook, teachers, nurse, social worker and others help the more than fifty other girls between the ages of three and eighteen who live here. Thy rescued every one of them.
“The girls were being abused or raped or there was violence in the home,” he says. “They were always in danger.”
Like this late afternoon ferry ride across the murky Mekong River, Thy and Cambodia are on a long journey in the dusk, where people are not always what they seem and poor girls are taken advantage of in every corner of the country.
* * *
Born in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1975 – the year Pol Pot’s communist soldiers emptied the city – Thy’s family fled to Kampot Province, where they lived in rural poverty.
Pol Pot’s plan was to return Cambodia to an idealized agrarian Marxist state. He destroyed roads, hospitals and bridges, executed the educated class and forced peasants into farm collectives, where they starved to death when the land wouldn’t yield crops. Soldiers bludgeoned infants and children in the infamous killing fields, and tortured people in schools that had been converted to prisons. Two million citizens were murdered from 1975 to 1979, before Vietnamese soldiers finally chased Pol Pot from power.
Hungry in body and starving for an education, young Thy found no one who supported or believed in his possibilities.
“I didn’t even know where Phnom Penh was,” he says, amazed at his younger self.
With his country in chaos and a puppet communist government in power, Thy struggled to get a primary education and had to take the national university admissions test twice.
“Everyone had to make a bribe to get into the university,” he says. “I didn’t have any money for a bribe. I couldn’t believe it when they told me I was accepted.”
He arrived in Phnom Penh to begin his college studies with the equivalent of twenty dollars in his pocket, only to discover the public university provided no housing or food. With no place to stay and no jobs to be found, Thy went from one pagoda to the next, begging the Buddhist monks for shelter and food. Before Pol Pot, the pagodas had been a place of refuge and study. Now they, too, were desperate. Monks turned Thy away again and again. It was the most painful time of his life – so painful that he chokes back tears remembering.
“I tell the girls my story so that they will understand that if you work hard you can do something with your life,” Thy says.
In the early 1990s, when the United Nations finally stepped in to oversee elections and sort out Cambodia’s chaotic leadership, a doctor set up an orphanage in the pagoda where Thy had found a temporary home. He doesn’t remember the doctor’s name or even his nationality – only that he was a “foreigner,” and that he “had donors, and [he] saw that I had a sympathy for the children.”
Orphaned and abandoned children were living in the streets, soldiers were still fighting in the countryside, and Pol Pot was waiting in the mountains hoping to stage a comeback. With one quarter of the nation dead from the failed revolution and the rest traumatized, underage prostitution was an open epidemic.
“The girls sat outside and you couldn’t drive on the roads because they always asked you to have sex with them,” Thy says.
After college graduation, Thy landed a job as a caseworker for CCPCR, which had been founded by a group of Cambodian professionals in 1994.
Armed with a hidden tape recorder and photographs of girls who’d been sent off with a broker “uncle” or “auntie,” Thy wound his way through the brothels, pretending to be a customer in search of a young body. He dressed in rough workman’s clothes and played an unfamiliar role until that soon became second nature for him: trolling for sex in the capital city’s entrenched brothels.
“There were many brothels and there were a lot of girls with HIV, but we didn’t talk about HIV, we called them STDs or women’s disease,” he says. “The men didn’t use condoms,” in part because they believed sex with a virgin could cure HIV.
Inside wooden shacks with dirt floors and no windows, Thy slid into tiny rooms where girls waited alone for him. But he didn’t have sex: he would find a specific girl, show her a photograph from home, and ask if she wanted to be rescued.
“Then I’d tell her to wait, and that I’d come back for her.”
Paperwork had to be filed with the local authorities, and bribing was (and still is) often necessary. But things happened quickly enough. Soon he’d return after dark with a local police officer, enter the floppy brothel buildings and take the girls away.
“We would empty the whole brothel, there would be many girls,” he says, “ten or twenty girls at each raid.”
He and his colleagues rescued thousands of sex workers during those early years, some only six years old. After the rescues there was medical care, years of counseling, protection, and sometimes rehabilitation and reunion with their families. But not always. Some girls never want to go home after they’ve been trafficked. There’s shame and fear, and they prefer the protection and comfort of CCPCR’s shelter, with its opportunity to go to school and learn English, the language of hope in Cambodia.
A few years into Thy’s dangerous career, a young prostitute alerted the brothel owner of his intentions. When he arrived for the raid, he encountered the enraged owner wielding a gun.
“We ran very fast,” he says with a small laugh. Other incidences with guns followed. “At least thee times, the brothel gangs tried to kill my staff,” he recalled.
Millions of United Nations’ dollars poured into Cambodia after the world saw Pol Pot’s killing fields. Dozens and then hundreds of organizations like CCPCR sprouted up like mushrooms. And yet today the Cambodian sex trade is a multi-million dollar business roughly equal to the government’s entire annual budget.
Heavily armed brothel owners are fiercer than ever, and raiding is now a secretive and dangerous business.
“Today it’s very dangerous to rescue girls because this is the brothel owners’ jobs and they try to kill us,” Thy says. “I have to care about our staff. We want to help, but the staff has a problem. How can we do it without subjecting our staff to violence?”
Since his rise from station manager in Svay Rieng Province to executive director of CCPCR in 2010, Thy has turned the organization away from brothel raiding to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty and trafficking.
Instead of facing off with brothel owners, CCPCR takes in children after they’ve been identified and rescued by the police or government agencies, and provides what they need to heal and grow. Sometimes teenagers who’ve been abused, neglected or forced to live in destitution find his organization and apply to him directly for help.
“In Cambodia when a girl has been sexually abused she has nothing. The victim becomes guilty – they blame the victim for being abused and she is stigmatized,” says Chin Chanveasna, a child advocate, formerly with the United Nations, who has worked extensively with Thy. “A girl who is raped or abused who is not treated in the [psycho-social counseling] program will end up trafficked because she feels worthless.”
While Western sex tourism does account for some of Cambodia’s rampant underage sex trade, the truth is that, for many Cambodian men, sex with children is acceptable, and sexual abuse in families is not uncommon.
“It’s very hard to change children’s families because they have a long virus – a sickness of trauma from the Pol Pot regime,” Thy says. He believes the sorry state of child welfare in Cambodia is a lasting legacy of Pol Pot’s genocide. The country has been called a nation suffering from collective post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s this sickness that Thy is working to heal.
Under Thy’s leadership, CCPCR maintains two active shelters, community outreach programs and border transit stations near Vietnam and Thailand. He’s also begun village outreach, education, and a micro-grant program for struggling families. A few chickens, and a family can sell eggs. A cart and bicycle, and they can open a shop rather than trafficking or selling a child.
Thy’s goal is to see the girls he rescues, and eventually CCPCR’s entire network, able to support themselves rather than rely on grants or money from donors. Without education or skills, Cambodia’s daughters of poverty easily become victims. With CCPCR’s help they become educated and skillfully employed.
* * *
In 1978, Pok Bunna wore a black Khmer Rouge uniform and lived as part of Pol Pot’s brutal revolutionary army. Today she’s the fifty-seven-year-old shelter manager and psychosocial counselor overseeing CCPCR’s Phnom Penh shelter, and the halfway house that shelters close to fifteen college-age women. She has a husband and five children, the oldest of whom is blind.
“I left Phnom Penh with twenty people in my family when Pol Pot came,” Bunna says. “His soldiers came and took us out of our house. They made us leave that night, and they told us to walk and walk. They said it would be only three kilometers, but it was thirty kilometers. They lied.”
Sitting on a swinging metal bench in the shelter courtyard after dark, Bunna’s face is transfixed, her eyes gazing into the past and filled with tears. Bugs are biting, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Instead she sees her sister screaming in childbirth and bleeding to death. Her mother, bending for a drink of water and never getting up. Her father, her nephew, her uncles and aunts disappearing one by one until it was a matter of raw survival.
“I decided to survive and I pretended to be Khmer Rouge,” she says. “I read the rule books, I put on the black uniform, I was so proud when I had enough to eat and it meant I wouldn’t die,” she says. “I had a Khmer Rouge brother and a Khmer Rouge family, but I wasn’t one of them.”
This is the way it is in Thy’s Cambodia: hard to parse good and bad, the past and the present, the weak from the strong. He knows Bunna’s story – they have been co-workers for years. He knows parents sell their children, men rape their daughters, mothers keep their girls home to work in the fields or sell souvenirs rather than sending them to school. He knows that the price of a seven-dollar school uniform is more than most families can afford. He knows he has to bribe officials to get things done.
Nothing seems to surprise Thy. For every three children who ride along the side of the road on a bicycle wearing a blue and white school uniform, there is another child trapped in a hopeless life. Of the 4.3 million Khmer children between the ages of five and seventeen, it’s estimated that 750,000 are engaged in forced labor, be it sexual, farm or factory work.
“In Cambodia it’s like a forest of trees,” Thy says. He’s pensive, determined to make himself understood. “I see your face, like I see the trees, but I do not know who you are. This is how it is in Cambodia.”
* * *
The river ferry, the Peace 2, arrives, and Thy’s SUV is the first car to roll on. The crossing is quick. On the other side of the Mekong, Cambodia’s factory rush hour has begun.
Driving deeper toward the impoverished Svay Rieng Province, we pass truck after truck, each loaded with fifty to sixty factory workers standing in the flatbeds like cattle, their faces to the wind, their heads wrapped against the sun. Two trucks pass us, two more, another six, ten, sixteen trucks in a row.
“Look,” Thy says, pointing at flocks of people getting out of the trucks to buy a drink or snack at a rustic roadhouse shack. The trucks are blue, the flatbeds wrapped in two bars like a cage. “These are the garment workers. Look how many there are, look how they live. This life is very hard.”
Thy’s phone rings and a child’s voice chirps through the line. Thy has two daughters and a son. He’s married to his college sweetheart, a university lecturer, but he doesn’t seem to spend much time at home. He’s passionate about his work, and it takes up his whole life.
He barely hangs up when the cell phone chirps again. And again. And again.
“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,” he jabs into the phone – Khmer (Cambodian) for yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
He hasn’t slept much in the past week – he’s been busy negotiating an agreement with the International Labor Organization to help transition underage children who are seized or rescued from garment factories. Some will be returned to their families, others will be given the opportunity to learn a new skill and live in a CCPCR shelter. When they’re old enough, the factory workers may move to CCPCR’s halfway house with other young adults who are learning a trade or pursuing a college degree.
* * *
The halfway house in Phnom Penh sits on a tree-lined street above a beauty salon. There, twenty-one-year-old Sopheap shares a pallet in a cheerful bedroom with other young women, all supported by CCPCR.
Sopheap was a factory worker until Thy found her. Raised in the province where we are traveling now, Sopheap is one of nine siblings. Her mother died young and her father remarried, and Sopheap put herself through school by making and selling cakes and vegetables to pay for her school uniform, books and supplies. When she graduated high school she took a factory job to help support her family. The only educated sibling, Sopheap spent a grueling six-day week sewing on tuxedo collars, working her way through an endless pile.
“Four hundred collars every day,” Sopheap says, speaking through Bunna, who translates for us. “We had to meet a quota or I’d work overtime and not get paid extra.”
Sometimes it took Sopheap until ten or eleven at night to make her quota.
She doesn’t know the name of the factory, the brand of tuxedoes, or for whom she worked.
“I never saw the owners or directors,” she says. This past January, five unarmed garment factory workers were shot dead by the military police during a peaceful protest in Phnom Penh. Their goal was to raise the subsistence minimum wage of factory workers.
“It’s clear to see they [garment workers] are underpaid,” says Kevin Doyle, outgoing editor-in-chief at The Cambodian Daily. “$120 a month – five dollars a day – will provide them the caloric ability to survive but not to live.”
“Even high school graduates work in factories here,” Bunna says. “Because there are no other jobs for them to find.”
Sopheap found CCPCR, and Thy took her in. Today she’s studying business law at Mekong University. She’s sweet, and prone to nervous giggling.
“I want American people to know that the life of factory worker is very hard,” she says. Then she giggles.
As Thy and I drive into Svay Rieng Province, the factories appear like monoliths along the sides of the road: sprawling, brightly lit compounds spewing eighteen-wheeler trucks onto the highway; unmarked gates illuminated with colored lights; each factory a cold blue kingdom, no name on the archways the workers pass through every day.
Before we reach the transit center Thy pulls into CCPCR’s rural shelter off Route 1. Slim, beautiful girls on silent feet run up to him crying su’sa’dai – hello, hello.
They put their hands together, prayer-like, the most respectful greeting in Cambodia. Thy may seem somber when he’s talking about his job, but when he’s with the girls there’s a light around him. This is what he is meant to do.
* * *
It’s dark and very late as we wind through a maze of small dirt roads lined with wire fences, shacks and the occasional moto bike. Electricity runs here because factory owners supply the lines, but evidence of poverty is everywhere: in the rutted dirt roads, the skinny stray dog that darts across our path, the fires that burn in back of the shacks where people stretch a bowl of rice to feed their families of six, seven, even ten children.
CCPCR’s transit center – a brick building that resembles a sturdy house or a small school – is closed, but the psychosocial worker is there to greet us, and some of the the walls are covered with photographs of children who’ve passed through the center.
Tea is served: plain water in a white ceramic pot.
“Sometimes the parents are mad because they don’t want us to rescue their children,” says Sophea Kong, who’s been part of Thy’s team for two years. “They tell us they have no other way to survive. But we try to mobilize the resources of the community.”
This is a Buddhist nation, but the men invoke a Bible story: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.
In the morning, forty-three-year-old Kong will do what Thy has taught him: He’ll go into the community and talk to parents desperate to feed their children. He’ll explain the value of education, and the importance of sending their children to school rather than into Vietnam to beg. When he can, he’ll offer some chickens, some rice to grow, something to cultivate so the parents can ease their destitution without resorting to trafficking their own children.
“The parents need to be educated,” Thy says for the umpteenth time. “And I want the girls to understand that they can have a goal of Plan A, but if she can’t do that, then there’s Plan B. They have to have a goal and a plan, even if they have to go to Plan C.”
Once upon a time, Thy went into brothels and rescued the girls with his own hands: Plan A. Next, he sent in his team: Plan B. Today, he’s working to break the cycle of poverty, trafficking and desperation by giving families something to grow their lives with: Plan C.
“When the old people in Cambodia die and the young people are educated I think they will change the country,” Thy says. “I expect that in 2025 or maybe the year 2030 the country will change and grow really fast.”
Until then, Thy will drive through the dark and the dawn to rescue every girl – every child – sent his way.
“Too many people in Cambodia, when they have a little money or a little knowledge, they do not want to share it because then they’re afraid it will all be gone,” he says. “I try to share what I have and what I know.”
* * *
Erika Pineros is a Colombian-Australian photojournalist based in Cambodia since 2010. Her work focuses on development and human rights issues and has appeared in publications such as The Guardian and CNN International.