Raid in Cambodia Led to the Death of Pen Kunthea

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

There have been calls for systematic change, accountability and justice to be served following the death of a sex worker who was pursued in a crackdown in Daun Penh, Cambodia. Several international non-governmetal organisations (NGOs), including human rights organisations and advocacy groups for sex workers have demanded that the Cambodian government decriminalise sex work to protect the rights of sex workers.

Laws introduced following pressure under the US Trafficking in Person Report (TIP Report) and from significant donor countries (including the United States and Australia) that conflate sex work and trafficking have had detrimental effect on sex workers and people who have been trafficked in Cambodia (and elsewhere).

In January, 33-year-old mother Pen Kunthea drowned when she slipped and hit her head while jumping between boats to run away from district security guards. She was left to drown. The laws criminalising sex work in Cambodia facilitate violence towards sex workers.

According to an eye witness, the district security guards made no effort to call other authorities to help save her and made threats to those who attempted to save her from drowning.

Pen Meng Ky, Pen Kunthea’s sister told media that the security guards needed to be held responsible, stating that she would file a complaint. “They could do it again if I don’t file a complaint against them,” she said.

“When they saw my sister raise her hand asking for help, they just left her in the water,” she added. “They cannot remain comfortable.”

However, following a 7-day funeral and mourning period, Meng Ky met with the district governor and accepted their offer of financial assistance, to provide $300 per month until her 5 year old nephew turns 18.  

Ms. Meng Ky said she accepted the money, despite describing it as ‘unjust to my sister’ because she needed to decide for her nephew, who is living with polio. Meng Ky could not afford the costs of filing a complaint, and did not trust that anything would come of it, explaining “I have no power like them.”

Mr. Vutha, the security guard chief, said his forces raided areas where sex workers were known to operate because they had a duty to keep “public order.”

“We are enforcing these raids on the sex workers under the public order law, which says we have to make sure the public [space] is beautiful,” he said.

The current “eradication policy” based on a sweeping criminalisation and oppressionhas been criticised in Cambodia and internationally. The policy has created difficulties for HIV prevention and has forced sex workers underground. Such policies also act to normalise and perpetuate discriminatory treatment.

Thida Khus, the head of women’s rights group Silaka, said that legal action against the guards would be well-deserved.

“They ran after her illegally, so they are the cause of her drowning – they killed her”

Ms. Khus said the guards’ response after the chase was also illegal. “They did not even try to rescue her. That’s a crime; they are violating the law.”

The director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Chak Sopheap, told media “the Phnom Penh authorities clearly seem to think that the life of a woman and a sex worker—a group that has often faced discrimination, harassment and stigmatization—is not of equal value to other persons who have fallen into the river and been the subject of extensive search operations.”

In an opinion piece by Mu Sochua, a member of parliament for the opposition CNRP wrote,
“Based on eyewitness accounts, it seems clear that Pen Kunthea did not die as a result of negligence on the part of the security guards, but as a result of their intention. Such a crime is punishable by 15 to 30 years in prison.

Justice for Pen Kunthea can put an end to the abuse of power of the security guards, as well as those who give them free rein to inflict terror on those they judge to be spreading ‘social disorder.’”

She added that the CNRP in their capacity as members of Cambodian government, have sent an official request to the concerned ministers to take action to pursue an independent investigation and prosecution – in order to protect the human rights of all women.