Less than a mile away from the office where Thais and I work, there used to be a nightclub called the Martini Pub. In the early 2000’s, horrible, unspeakable things happened in that club – and in dozens like it around Phnom Penh and other cities in Cambodia – every single day and night.
A young man named Sek Sareoun (his given name, Sareoun, is pronounced “suh-ROON”) worked in the Martini Pub as a DJ. He was appalled at what he saw, but he felt powerless to do anything about it.
When IJM rolled into Phnom Penh and started quietly asking questions fifteen years ago, Sareoun sensed opportunity. He became a trusted informant for IJM investigators, providing valuable information that led to a raid and a rescue. Many other raids and rescues followed, including a 2006 raid covered in the U.S. by Dateline News.
Sareoun eventually became a member of IJM’s staff. There were only a few hundred lawyers in Cambodia at that time, and IJM needed legal resources on its staff. So, Sareoun enrolled in law school (while still working at IJM and as a DJ/informant) and then became a member of the Cambodian Bar. Sareoun began representing victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodian courts, as an IJM lawyer. He became the Director of the Legal Department for IJM-Cambodia. Over the course of more than a dozen years, Sareoun played a role in more than 500 rescues and more than 190 convictions, with a conviction rate north of 95%. Here is his story -- the short version first, and the longer version with his personal faith journey second:
These convictions have brought about real change. Cambodia is no longer a place where children are bought and sold in brothels and nightclubs with impunity. The public justice system has changed. The risks and penalties have changed. And with that, the criminal behavior has changed. Fifteen years ago, it is estimated that 15-30% of brothel workers in Cambodia were minors. Today, that number has been reduced to around 2%, with only 0.1% of those under the age of 15.
Yesterday Sareoun drove me around the area where the Martini Pub used to be. The pub is no longer there. Neither are the brothels in the adjoining neighborhoods. In their place are pharmacies, shops, restaurants, apartments, and other buildings commonly found throughout Phnom Penh. A miraculously transformed neighborhood, shown to me by a miraculously transformed man.
IJM-Cambodia is now focused on a different kind of case: forced labor slavery. Information about the work we are doing can be found here. We are in the very early phases of this new project. The learning curve is steep, and the issues are very complex, including cross-border issues requiring cooperation among governments and law enforcement officials from rival nations. Let’s see what God does with this. Thanks to all of you for your prayers and support, as IJM-Cambodia continues its work to help bring justice to all of God's children.
For you law geeks out there who are curious about legal research and how lawyers work in Cambodia, I’ve added some legal references to the Resources page – specifically, links to Cambodia’s landmark 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, as well as the Explanatory Notes promulgated by Cambodia's Ministry of Justice. These are the primary legal tools that we use in our work. The changes taking place in Cambodia would not be possible without the significant contributions of leaders in the Cambodian government, who have shown courage in tackling these problems.