Prime Minister Hun Sen has decided not to shut down a Christian anti-trafficking charity after its founder issued a “heartfelt apology” yesterday.
The apology from Agape International Missions (AIM) CEO Don Brewster is the first public comment he has made since the social media fracas sparked by a CNN report that identified three girls sold into sexual slavery and rescued by AIM as Cambodian, when they were in fact ethnically Vietnamese.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday told The Post Hun Sen had granted the NGO a second chance after he ordered AIM to be investigated and shut down for the “serious insult”.
“For AIM, Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] has decided it can continue, but they need to hold a press conference to elaborate the issues that took place in the past,” Kheng said.
Speaking at just such a press conference yesterday, Brewster said he and AIM “were mistakenly accused of working with CNN to defame the integrity of Cambodian mothers and of not having programmes to help the people of Cambodia”.
“Both of these accusations are false,” he added. “I would like to express my deep sorrow for any hurt or harm inflicted on Cambodia and its people that resulted from the CNN Freedom Project broadcast.”
The CNN error had been made, he said, despite him explicitly telling CNN the victims were ethnically Vietnamese and the fact that a Vietnamese translator was used to conduct interviews.
The furore surrounding the report appeared fuelled by Cambodians’ historical animosity towards the Vietnamese, many of whom, even those who have lived in the country for generations, are often denied services as “foreigners”. All three of the women interviewed, Brewster said yesterday, possess Cambodian identity cards.
The government’s response, meanwhile, appeared to ignore both the wider issue of sex trafficking – which advocates say remains a problem – and the fact that the CNN report had called attention to authorities’ good work in largely stamping out what was once a notorious hub of child sex trafficking.
Huy Vannak, director of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, who lashed out at the coverage, yesterday claimed “AIM has not shown its sincere apology to Cambodian mothers, girls and the people”.
“Our stance is to continue to seriously monitor if twisted reports are made again in the future. We cannot tolerate any fundraising activities for tiny projects which cost Cambodian international image and the people’s dignity,” he said in a statement.
The decision to close the NGO rested with the government, and depended on whether or not it had complied with the highly controversial NGO Law, he said.
A reporter from CNC – a sister station to CTN, where Vannak is head of news – became heated as he demanded an apology from Brewster at yesterday’s press conference: “We don’t want you to use an NGO to exploit or to defame or look down on Cambodian women,” the reporter said.
Brewster stressed he had apologised, “however, I did not say those things, CNN did”. A spokesperson for CNN yesterday reiterated that they stood by their reporting, but had no further comment.
Brewster added Prime Minister Hun Sen had not overreacted in ordering the investigation. “I think the prime minister quickly stood to protect the reputation of Cambodian mothers and called for an investigation . . . I think it was a fine process. He stood for Cambodian women, but wanted a fair investigation.”
He said former brothels in the notorious Svay Pak village, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, had been transformed with the help of 14 of their programmes – including a school, shelters for trafficking victims, training centres, churches and emergency foster care – for some 4,772 Cambodian people.
At the press conference, Brewster said he did not expect he would be asked to shut down, but stressed he didn’t “have any evidence to support that belief”.
The investigation into AIM’s operations comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of NGOs and media outlets seen as portraying the government in a negative light. Rights groups Licadho and Adhoc, and election monitor Comfrel, have each been summoned for meetings by the Tax Department, and the government has said it will shut down the Cambodia Daily on September 4 if it fails to pay its back taxes.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson welcomed the news that AIM would not be cast out of the country, but said Hun Sen’s threats had an intimidating impact. “AIM’s sin apparently was to dredge up a particularly shameful, dirty narrative about the prostitution of children that the government thought they had put behind them for good,” he said.
“Cambodia is aiming to get out of the bad performers club on human trafficking and so the prime minister foolishly lashed out at AIM instead of recognising that he could use the story to explain that Cambodia has progressed significantly since then in ending these worst forms of abuse against children.”