pailin – At night, the red lights pour out onto streets that once were deserted after dark.
Young women with white-powdered faces and tight-fitting jeans flit around the karaoke parlors and guesthouses by night, and peek out of the innocuous-looking buildings by day.
They hail from as far away as Svay Rieng province, more than 350 km away. They say they are newcomers to Pailin and are here on vacation or “to play.”
But the presence of an estimated 200 young women believed to be prostitutes is provoking concern from officials and residents in this former Khmer Rouge stronghold, where the smallest of transgressions was once met with harsh punishment.
Prostitution, like corruption, was a social sin that was once non-existent, say former Khmer Rouge here.
Now it is open and obvious and has powerful backers, residents said last week.
“It’s the freedom of people living in an open society,” said Pailin’s court chief, Pich Sarin, on Thursday. “But when we struggled against the [Phnom Penh] regime, we were innocent.”
When Pailin defected to the Phnom Penh government in 1996, this crippled the Khmer Rouge’s ability to make money off the rich cross-border gem and timber trade. Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge deputy prime minister, once characterized himself as a moral crusader and said Pailin’s development would be challenged by prostitution, gambling and other capitalist vices.
Now, Ieng Sary’s son, Ieng Vuth, who as the city’s second deputy governor runs Pailin on a day-to-day basis, said he and his father are equally disappointed with Pailin’s failure to prevent the trade.
“It appears difficult to eradicate prostitution,” he said Saturday. “We used to struggle in the deep forests, and after defection, some people just decided to go pleasure-seeking.”
Such a problem, Ieng Vuth said, will take time to fight off.
Many here blame the flow of prostitutes into Pailin as part of Khmer Rouge communism opening up to a free market. Residents say the prostitution feeds off those who have benefited most from the free market and lax law enforcement.
Officials and residents agree that the proliferation of sex workers is destroying the fabric of Pailin society.
“It is the disease that wants to kill the Khmer people,” said Mey Mann, a longtime Khmer Rouge intellectual, now turned chief of the UN’s human rights office in Pailin.
Prime among the lure for prostitutes in Pailin is the inflated price that they can charge wealthy Thai traders and local businessmen, say residents. While sex with a prostitute costs 5,000 riel ($1.30) in Battambang town, the nearest Cambodian city roughly 70 km to the east, it costs 300 Thai baht ($9) here, according to a group of gem traders from Battambang.
The traders, who have lived in Pailin for two years since the dusty gem-mining town opened its doors to the outside, say the effects of prostitution here are ruffling feathers among the town’s long-time residents.
“Every night when I’m out walking, drunks come out on the streets, talking about prostitution,” said Math, 51, whose small wooden desk faces Pailin’s main street from the front of his clapboard shack.
Police and residents say that many of the women come from Phnom Penh and Battambang after hearing about the opportunities. The flow of young women looking for work began in late 1997, but has steadily increased until now, residents and police report.
The flow of prostitutes to Pailin coincides with a general stream of people coming here for the relatively neutral political atmosphere or the promise of getting rich from the gem trade.
Bou Sarin, a deputy police chief here, last Friday estimated that as many as 40,000 people now live in the mountainous and forested area, perhaps double the number who lived here two years ago. In September, officials estimated a population of 30,000.
Asked if there are any businessmen making money off prostitution or providing protection to brothels, Bou Sarin said his officers are investigating, but have no results yet. He claimed that a recent police survey of prostitutes in Pailin scared off more than half of the young women.
However, city officials say the number of prostitutes is increasing. And residents say a handful of bordellos that cater to wealthy men exist with police protection. “It is clear that the bordello owners have to pay some money to the police,” one of the gem traders from Battambang said last Friday.
The cost, they say, is $20 per month to keep the establishment up and running. They also note that the relatively opulent discos and gambling houses that have opened up in recent months are a conduit for the sex trade.
Officials say there has been no way to test the prostitutes for HIV, the virus that leads to the deadly AIDS syndrome, and they fear that the virus will soon run rampant in the population.
A military doctor last Friday estimated that 2 percent of Pailin’s population already has HIV, compared with 1 percent nationwide.
“We need to have a doctor check all the prostitutes, count them and round them up into a group,” Ieng Vuth said.
Ieng Sary in April 1997 told the Associated Press that the challenge for the newly defected Pailin was to develop while keeping at bay the social ills of the rest of Cambodia—the lawlessness that has fostered prostitution, narcotics trafficking and corruption.
“If we allow prostitution, it would be enormously difficult to rebuild,” he said. Then, the town’s public address system used to start at 6 am blaring the message, “No crime, no prostitution or gambling, no monopoly business.”
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