Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sex trade in Cambodia, Childish Khmers and the Blame Game

I am posting a comment I wrote on this website run by a Khmer-American. In general Oudam is a good, thoughtful, site, and gives an insight into overseas Khmers and they way they think and feel about their country. But it also has horrors such as, "After all, we Khmers built Angkor– it’s in our blood to be great."

It's like the Chinese always saying we invented gun powder, paper, bridges and what have you and so are destined to rule the world. It always disturbs me, this misplaced sense of pride. I am sure if we went into it, most cultures would have produced something great at one time or another, so how should we play this game of my invention is bigger than yours?

Anyway, the comment I left was in response to Oudam showing Dan Rivers' CNN report on the sex trade in Cambodia

The comment failed to appear, but since I've written it, I figure I may as well post it on my blog.

This is the quote I take issue with:

"The work of Mam Somaly, the former prostitute featured in this video, is admirable. However, a glaring omission from the report is the throngs of Western sex tourists and pedophiles who come to Cambodia each day to exploit our women and children and help fuel the sex trade. They’d arrive by the plane-loads, fanning out across towns and villages taking advantage of impoverished Cambodian women and children."

This is what I said:

Please give us facts and figures. You do not help the discussion by fanning racist flames and repeating hearsay information.

Do a bit of research and you will find actual figures:

October 08, 2007
High demand for virgins from mostly Asian clients is fuelling the flow of underage girls into Cambodia's sex trade, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says.

About 38 per cent of the women and girls surveyed working in the sex trade in Cambodia entered the industry by selling their virginity, IOM found, while 85 per cent of the clients paying to sleep with them were Asian men. See

and this March 2006 report:

Bearup (2003) also conducted a quantitative study with convenience sampling of 580 young people (13–28 years old) living in Phnom Penh and found that 60 percent of male university students knew others who had been involved with bauk (gang-rape).

Percent beaten by gangsters in past year - 60.6

Percent whose money was taken by gangsters in past year - 67.2

Percent raped by a single gangster in past year - 43.7

Percent gang raped by gangster in past year - 42.7

"While the level of violence reported here from clients seems high compared to the limited data available from elsewhere in Asia (Jenkins et al., 2002), the interviews reveal that many of the men referred to as clients are in fact gangsters and out-of-uniform police.

"Altogether, 86.8 percent of female freelance sex workers and 90.8 percent of srey sraos (transvestites) had been raped in the past year. The percent raped by police last year was 41.8, and the percent raped by gangsters last year 62.0, whereas the percent raped by clients last year was 73.8. In total, the percent of freelance sex workers raped by anyone last year was 85.3.

Please don't tell me the people the university students know, the gangsters and the police are "Westerners". They are clearly Khmer. So you can understand my fury at Khmers who abuse their own people and then have unwitting allies like yourself who distract from the problem by trying to point fingers elsewhere.

If you really want to do something to help your people in this area, you need to get your facts right first. It is far simpler to take the easy way out and blame foreigners for a problem that is mostly caused by Khmers and can be solved by Khmers, by the Cambodian government and police themselves, if they weren't some of the biggest perpetrators.

Diana Saw
a Singaporean woman living in Cambodia

I get really angry at what I perceive to be a common Khmer trait: blaming other people and not taking responsibility for one's own actions. This happened (notice i use the past tense, because things have changed) a lot with the Bloom team. It was impossible to get anyone to own up to any wrongdoing and forget about getting anyone to say "Sorry". Every single time, workers would blame one of their peers for a mistake. It was always somebody else's fault. And it was always done behind the other's back. It was terrible and reminded me of primary school, when kids lie and blame someone else when confronted by the teacher. I am still reeling from an incident where two women gave two completely different accounts of the same incident, one of them clearly a barefaced liar ("Barefaced" or "Boldface": "Barefaced is one year older than bold-faced; its first print appearance dates to 1590. But the original meaning of barefaced was literal: it meant "having the face uncovered,".... barefaced soon came to describe something "unconcealed or open"; and then something "showing or having a lack of scruples." Merriam-Webster Online).

Of course they were worried about consequences, but being an adult means taking responsibility for one's actions. In this regard, I find Khmers to be very childish--if you reprimand them, for instance, they will laugh or giggle, as a way of hiding embarrassment, instead of discussing the issue like adults. It used to drive me crazy when our first housekeeper (the one who ran away to the province, taking my camera etc with her) giggled every time I pointed out the things she did incorrectly (like putting the rice cooker pot in the microwave!).

As I said, things have changed with Bloom. It has taken almost 2 years, but the team leaders Sipha and Saren are now (sometimes) willing to point out mistakes on their own and apologise for them, even before I notice anything. Part of it was reassuring the team that it is ok to make mistakes, as long as we learn. I repeated this constantly, every time someone made a mistake at work--it could be drawing the wrong template, so the bags would turn out wrong, for instance. I honestly think it is ok for me to lose a bit of money for the workers to learn, because they will improve as workers which will benefit the business in the long run. And I am glad they seem to have more confidence in themselves and appear to be more responsible than when we first met.


Admin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Admin said...

So what's your point? That Khmers are a whining, child-like race that never accept responsibility for their actions?

I think you need to examine your own logic and bias here.

I salute your work in Cambodia. I know things there can get a bit frustrating, but let's not make wholesale generalizations about the Khmer people based on what I wrote or how some of your Khmer subordinates carry themselves.


Diana Saw said...

Hi Oudam,

I'm not the one making generalizations here. Please re-read the post. Nowhere do I say ALL Khmers are, to quote you, "a whining, child-like race that never accept responsibility for their actions?"

These are my words: "I get really angry at what I perceive to be A COMMON KHMER TRAIT". Common does not mean all-inclusive, and certainly does not comprise an entire RACE.

Calm down. One *can* have a rational discussion without ad hominems or strawmen.

Thanks for the salute.


Admin said...


After some exploration of your site, I am convinced that you are the type of person that Cambodia sorely needs. I admire your work to help Cambodians help themselves. This is a lifelong dream of mine which I hope will materialize someday.

I think one positive aspect about making generalizations about others-- if there is one-- is that it forces us to examine our own bias and prejudices.

Cambodia needs good people of all races to help us get back on our feet; it does not need bad people of any race. But as we both know, the bad people are already there-- lots of them-- so they must be dealt with. So, as far as I'm concerned, we're on the same side.

Keep up the good work!


Diana Saw said...

Hi Oudam,

Thanks for the comment. It is good to know people understand what I am trying to achieve with Bloom. I am in Kathmandu right now and am worried how the rising food prices are affecting the Bloom team. It is a big worry and I am focused on selling more bags so the workers can make more money.

Cheers from Nepal,

Oudam said...

Hi Diana,

I hope you're enjoying your stay in Kathmandu.

I too am concerned about the current inflation in Cambodia. I understand that as a humanitarian/businesswoman, you're in a difficult position to raise salaries for your employees while maintaining attractive prices for your handbags. I hope you'll arrive at a workable balance.

Some things are beyond our control. We can only respond to them with the best intentions and the most skillful use of resources available to us. If that doesn't produce the best results, so be it. I think it's enough to know that we're doing our best in any situation.



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