I couldn’t not write my novel, Making Ghosts Dance. I moved with my wife and three young children to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2004. Cambodia was a beautiful and impoverished nation experiencing rapid economic development and an unprecedented influx of foreign tourists come to see the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Angkor, which had been off-limits for decades due to armed insurgency and general lawlessness in the area. Upon our arrival, I was immediately struck by Cambodia’s thriving sex industry, in general, and the prominence of sex tourism, in particular. Most disturbing of all was the evident trafficking and prostitution of children.
I reached out to a foreign nongovernmental organization involved in the rescue of children from prostitution to see how I could help. This organization asked if I would volunteer to venture into Cambodian villages known to traffic in children, posing as a foreign pedophile, in order to support their efforts.
There were many reasons to say no. For one, my personal safety would be at risk; the sex industry was operated by violent organized crime gangs with reported high-level connections in the Cambodian government. Second, as the primary caregiver of three small children—including an adopted child who could pass for Cambodian—the safety of my family was no passing concern. Making Ghosts Dance, in essence, is a product of my worst nightmare.
In the end, the decision was made for me. On December 7, 2004, police under the direction of General Un Sokunthea, head of Cambodia’s Anti-Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department, raided a Phnom Penh hotel and found dozens of women and children working there as prostitutes. These people were released by the police and given shelter by AFESIP, a French organization that served victims of sex trafficking.
On December 8, AFESIP’s shelter was raided by armed men in vehicles with Cambodian military license plates. Ninety-one women and children were forcibly removed from the shelter and, for all practical purposes, vanished. AFESIP was forced to temporarily cease operations in Cambodia after receiving death threats. General Sokunthea was suspended from her post. As a result, the NGO I’d contacted ceased their rescue operations before I’d gotten started, citing a “lack of commitment and cooperation” on the part of the Cambodian government to end human trafficking and the prostitution of children.
Child sex trafficking continues in Cambodia. The US Department of State reported in 2017 that “Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking” and that “Cambodia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” Although the Cambodian government has taken some positive steps, endemic corruption, poverty, and persistent demand ensure the exploitation of children for sex in Cambodia remains stubbornly robust. – Gregory E. Buford