A Cambodian woman says she sold her daughter’s virginity for $1,000 because they needed the money. Dressed in a school uniform with a backpack on her shoulders, the girl confirms her mother’s account. Both of their faces are shown and names revealed.
At one point in the film, a man off camera is heard asking the girl in Khmer, “Is it true? She really sold you?”
“Yes, it’s true,” the girl replies. “She made me do that.”
Then, in mid-October, the documentary film produced by Russian news outlet RT about child sex trafficking in Cambodia was published online and widely shared, garnering the attention of authorities. Later that month, the mother and daughter featured in the film were called in for questioning.
They told police they had lied on camera and were paid for their interviews, according to local media reports.
Now, the film’s Cambodian news fixer is being detained in a Phnom Penh prison on charges of “incitement to discriminate,” his wife and a court spokesman said on Friday. He faces up to three years in prison if convicted.
Since it spread across Facebook, government officials have called the 27-minute film “fake” news and a “fabrication” that damaged Cambodia’s reputation.
The film, titled “My Mother Sold Me: Cambodia, Where Virginity Is a Commodity,” tells the stories of four Cambodian girls who were trafficked or paid for sex at the behest of poor relatives or partners.
The jailed fixer and translator, Rath Rott Mony, who helped RT interview the Cambodian women and girls in the film, was transferred to Cambodian police custody on Wednesday night by Thai authorities, his wife, Long Kimheang, told the Southeast Asia Globe on Friday.
Mony, 47, who is listed as one of three producers in the film’s credits, was attempting to secure asylum in the Netherlands for himself, his wife and their one-year-old son when he was arrested by Thai police in Bangkok last week, Kimheang said.
“He does his job, and he wants the government to solve the problem that is revealed in the film,” Kimheang, 33, said Friday after visiting her husband at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.
Mony, who is president of the Cambodian Construction Workers Trade Union Federation, told his wife that the film was true and he didn’t pay the mother, Kav Malay, or her daughter, a high school student, for the interviews, Kimheang said, adding that her husband had just wanted to make a film that would help the girl and others like her in Cambodia.
In late October, Mony got word from a source, whom he asked his wife not to name, that Malay would be arrested because she admitted to a crime on film, Kimheang said.
Later that day, Mony fled Cambodia for Thailand, fearing he would be arrested as well. A few days later, Malay and her daughter’s story changed.
Under questioning by anti-trafficking police, the pair allegedly said they were paid $200 to act in the film, the Khmer Times reported.
“If she dared to say the truth that she told in the [RT] story… then the mother would be arrested and charged,” said Kimheang.
Kimheang told Southeast Asia Globe that the court or the government should conduct an independent investigation to determine whether or not there was sex trafficking happening in Cambodia.
RT said in an email on Thursday that the outlet had “no reason to doubt the integrity of the original stories that subjects presented.”
The film’s director, Pavel Burnatov, denied the girls were acting and said the crew gave the subjects $200 to buy a washing machine to aid the poor family’s laundry business, RT reported on Thursday.
Huy Vannak, president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia and a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, on Friday called the film a “fabrication” that portrayed a “negative image” of Cambodian women.
He expressed doubt that the young RT subjects’ stories about engaging in sex work for money were true.
“A Cambodian girl doesn’t speak that bravely about this [topic],” Vannak said. “From outside, you can see [that] without pay [for the interviews], they wouldn’t be able to do this documentary.”
But one young woman interviewed in the film said this week that her story was depicted accurately.
“I was so poor and alone so I decided to sell my virginity for money in order to survive,” she told the Khmer Times. “We were filming based on true stories. Mr Rott Mony did nothing wrong.”
Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to shut down a Christian anti-trafficking organisation that was featured in a CNN report about girls who were sold into sexual slavery by their mothers, according to a Phnom Penh Post report from August 2017.
The premier, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, called the video report “a serious insult”. CNN defended its reporting.
Hun Sen, who has been criticised for a long-running crackdown on local media and civil society groups, later allowed the anti-trafficking organisation to remain open after its CEO made a public apology.
Chou Bun Eng, vice chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, said in November that the documentary damaged Cambodia’s reputation, and authorities were investigating whether the girls’ stories were true.
“Once the message is disseminated throughout the world, everyone thinks Cambodia is a place [for selling girls],” Bun Eng said.
“It seems like they try to disseminate the fake information to the world,” she added.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Thursday called for Mony’s release.
“The real story behind this ‘false news’ accusation is that Cambodia has morphed from a multi-party democracy with a relatively free media into a one-party dictatorship that brooks no dissent,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a post on the organisation’s website on Thursday.
“It’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime that has damaged the national image, not the media,” he added.
Kimheang, Mony’s wife, said he had changed since he was arrested.
When she visited him in prison, she said his skin looked yellow, his head was shaved like a monk and he was afraid.
“It seemed like [there was] no blood in his face or body,” she said. “He looks like he is under serious pressure.
“But he still smiles to me.”
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