In the light of several recent horrific rapes in Cambodia and the deplorable human rights situation in the country in general, I am republishing a 2003 story on gang rape in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian sex workers
In the shadow of the Independence Monument in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, young women sell themselves for 6$ a night. Cambodia’s 70.000 sex workers are exposed to the fastest growing AIDS rate in the world. Now they also fear Bauk – gang rape.
First published in the Irish Independent in 2003
Sokuntia is twenty-four and comes from Kompong Cham. She lives barely a stone’s throw from the Independence Monument where she works as a street prostitute every night.
“I have worked as a taxi girl since I was 17 years old. I have been gang-raped seven or eight times.”
Bauk, which means plus in English, has been a growing worry for Phnom Penh’s prostitutes in the past four years. After thirty years of war, genocide, civil strife and instability, Cambodia’s young and rich now live out a culture of impunity, thriving on shootings, drug taking and rape, untroubled by a corrupt and underpaid police force.
Sokuntia shares an empty room in a dilapidated wooden shack, which stands in a muddy, dirty alley behind a housing estate that has survived several wars. She lives with her friend Vin and a baby. Sitting on her verandah, overlooking other shacks and muddy alleys, she tells me, “I was raped two weeks ago, in a boy’s house here in town. After two guys had plussed me, they held me down while another plussed me. They were holding my hands and legs while one man was doing it to me. I told the man I agreed to plus with five people, so they wouldn’t hurt me. The man said, ‘This is my house, I do what I want to do. You are lucky if I don’t burn your clothes.’ I was very scared and am very happy they did not kill me. They paid me 6 $.”
Every one of the seven taxi girls I meet over a three-week period has experienced gang-rape
It’s not hard to dig up the perpetrators. Two men readily agree to meet me in a mid-range hotel in town where they usually rape the girls When I arrive, Nhun and Samnang are lounging on the double bed, engrossed in hardcore porn that is broadcast on the hotel’s in-house system.
Nhun is twenty-four and studies marketing in Phnom Penh. He lives at home, owns a mobile phone and a motorbike. He looks like any other middle-class teenager anywhere in the world – trendy, carefree, always looking to show off in front of his peers.
Self confessed gang rapist Nhun
“I like to go to the disco. Because I am rich and good looking, I can usually pull a girl and take her to a hotel that my friends have booked. Sometimes I don’t have to pay money. If I can’t find a good girl, then I will try and find a taxi girl and take her. I don’t have much money so we all chip together, 8 – 10$. My friends wait for me somewhere and then I give them a signal on the mobile phone and then, when I bring the girl, it means Plus.”
Nhun describes a supposedly typical Bauk evening with his friends. “In the hotel, we rent two rooms. We put the girl in one room with one boy. When the boy is finished, the next one comes in. The girl never actually knows how many boys there are. The girls are all afraid. But they cannot escape.”
Samnang, a professor at a local university, is in his mid-thirties. Because of his public profile, he worries about being photographed and initially denies that he has ever been involved in Bauk, “It is not rape. You call it rape. But it is just violence. The sex-worker has agreed. When there are a lot of people in the room it can be violent but it is not rape. And for her own security she must cooperate.”
Nhun grins at me, “You don’t scream, you don’t cry. The only people out at night are gangsters. We call them Big Brother. They are dangerous. As a taxi girl you don’t resist Big Brother. And it’s not rape when we use a condom.”
A few beers down the line, Samnang, whose English improves as he warms to his subject, explains enthusiastically, “In Phnom Penh we have a lot of Bauk, but it’s a young man’s thing. The rape violence started about three years ago. The new generation of well-connected kids has money to burn. They can rape girls. The law won’t punish them. “
By 7pm every night, Sokuntia has installed herself next to several hundred other taxi girls on the grassy promenade east of the Independence Monument and scans the curb-crawlers.
“Sometimes I know the guys who do this and I turn them down. This is why I often have no customers. Sometimes the boys look very nice and handsome and make me believe everything is ok, but in the end they take me to a field or a school and rape me anyway. I have no money and no education. Poor people are not afraid to die.”
Young pimp in Phnom Penh
Like most of Cambodia’s sex-workers, Sokuntia cannot read or write and feels she has no rights and no one to turn to.
She has no idea that the Phnom Penh based NGO GAD (Gender and Development for Cambodia) has just published its first extensive study on gangs, rape, drugs and theft amongst the capital’s young.
Tong Soprach, the program assistant of the study, explains, “We found that up to 60% of male university students knew someone who had engaged in Bauk. And even in schools the number was as high as 34%. It’s a very serious problem in Phnom Penh. Just recently a girl jumped off a motorbike and died because the man who’d picked her up told her she would be plussed.”
The study suggests that Khmers, male and female, have very little understanding of the fundamental right of a woman to control her own body. Young Khmers also have a high tolerance for violence. More than 70% of those asked, said they had witnessed an assault where they believed the victims had deserved it.
When I meet Minister for Women’s Affairs, Mrs Mu Sochua, she herself is scared of the instability that swept through the capital in the aftermath of the recent general elections. She sees Bauk as a symptom of deep political and social problems.
“Bauk is a result of young people looking for self-expression. But this is self-expression with no rules, no legal framework. In Cambodia after the war there was a total breakdown of society, of social rules, plus a very corrupt judiciary system. It is out of control.”
Tong Soprach of GAD confirms this increasing decline of morality.
“In our survey we found that 11% of men asked, thought that Bauk was ‘a fun activity for friends’ while 12% thought Bauk ok ‘as prostitutes slept with many men anyway’. Students now start relationships with girls in order to commit Bauk. When the relationship is established and the girl has slept with the boy a few times, he will force her to sleep with all his friends too. Bauk is usually associated with prostitutes, but there are exceptions.”
At a local community center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, children between eight and eighteen learn traditional Khmer dances. The kids in their white pressed shirts, most from poor families, seem a long way away from the daily violence out in the streets. Poch, who’s fifteen, is giggling with embarrassment, “Most of us know what Bauk is. I don’t think it is rape. I know it happens not just to taxi girls.”
Only 13% of all people recently surveyed thought of Bauk as rape.
Minister Mu Sochua sees another reason why Bauk is gaining popularity, “Many families are headed by women, 30% of our families are headed by women. There are no male role models. It is a really sad picture and it is extremely serious.”
Glue-sniffing street kids in Phnom Penh
Male role models are indeed hard to come by in Cambodia, one of a few countries in the world where conflict has led to a significantly larger female population and where most successful men are criminals. Vin, a ‘taxi girl’ who cohabits Sokuntia’s tiny shack with her baby, explains why there is no help, “I have no money to inform the police when I get raped. When I was arrested, the police asked me if I had a mama-san (pimp). I told them I was alone and that I had no money. One policeman told me, ‘You can have sex with me and then I let you go.’ After I had sex with him, they let me go.“
Colonel Heng Peo, the Deputy Commissioner of Police in Phnom Penh, comments, “The problem with gang rape lies with the judiciary. The police treat this as a crime. But the young men just pay the judge and walk free. There is nothing we can do.
Heng Peo’s men
A recent UN report put Cambodia amongst the top nations for the uncontrolled spread of AIDS. Up to a quarter million people are already thought to be HIV positive. Both taxi girls and beer girls, employed by breweries to enhance sales are those who risk most. The beer girls get paid so little that prostitution is a common sideline.
Nhun and Samnang have heard of AIDS. Nhun, the urban rich kid, says, “I always use condoms, but I don’t know about my friends. Some people take drugs, they smoke yamma (meta-amphetamine) and don’t think about anything when they do Bauk.”
Samnang adds, “I never do Bauk but I read the papers and have experience of people with Bauk. My students tell me what they do.”
Nhun laughs. Samnang admits, “Just one time. I think it’s not good because of AIDS or hepatitis.”
The survey confirms this popular attitude – Bauk is getting a negative image primarily because of the risk of transmitted diseases, not because anyone finds anything fundamentally at fault with it. For the girls at the Independence Monument, this is just one of many worries.
As the evening with Nhun and Samnang winds down, the rest of their gang turns up. The boys are wired with beers and yamma (meta amphetamine). They want to simulate Bauk for me. The gang launches into a rape role-play. The boy with the longest hair is happy to take on the role of the girl. There is not a moment’s thought or hesitation before they pin him down on the bed and climb on top. Amidst shouting and drunken laughter, the young men strip down to their pants and demonstrate how to let go of everything.
Out on the street, girl after girl reaffirms Cambodia’s tragedy. Niang, a 19-year old prostitute from Kompong Cham, had been gang raped for the first time the night before I spoke to her. Sitting under a single streetlight, against the trunk of a tree, the skinny ‘taxi girl’ tells of her ordeal in a matter of fact, resigned voice, “One man paid and picked me up. Then at the hotel there were two more guys. When they had all finished, I had to do two hotel employees. I spoke to them nicely and tried to convince them that five men were too much. In the end I had to stay all night. I told them I was sick and they all used two condoms each.”
The GAD survey hints that the real symptoms partly lie in a long-standing tradition of absolute authority and total freedom for the rich, and a total lack of voice amongst the poor, especially the women, within Khmer culture.
Back at the hotel, Samnang agrees with the NGO’s findings, “Some boys have money and their parents are very powerful. They see one girl with five men on TV, so they want to try. Under the Khmer Rouge there was no rape.“
Political solutions, according to Minister Mu Sochua, are thin on the ground, “Prime Minister Hun Sen doesn’t even know what Bauk is. The old politicians don’t want to talk about commercial sex workers or people with AIDS. The generation gap is very real. If you don’t see people’s reality, you will cut them off. What you will see is social chaos, and that’s what’s happening.”
Indeed, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who prides himself on support amongst the young electorate, tells me he has never heard of Bauk. Prime Minster Hun Sen has never commented on the phenomenon. The political establishment has other priorities.
Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition, has never heard of Bauk when I interview him in 2003
Sokuntia is cooking dinner on the verandah of her shack. In half an hour she is off to work, resigned and without perspective. She tells me about voting in the recent general elections, “I went to vote because I want to change the country. I want this country to improve. I don’t want to hang around with stupid boys plussing me. I don’t want to see gangsters, rape, shootings and bombs any more. I want Khmers to run businesses. I want the system to work as it does in other countries.”
As we walk from her shack to the Independence Monument, Sokuntia reflects on the evening ahead, ”When many people come to plus me, I get very angry and sad, but in fact I have no choice, I have to survive, I have to ignore it, I have to get through with it. And all just for the money. Everything revolves around money.”