Sar Kheng: Investigations show trafficking complaints ‘95% true’

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A bird’s eye view of Sihanoukville last November. Yousos Abdulrashim

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said the government has spent more than $200 million building infrastructure in Preah Sihanouk province in order to attract investment and increase tax revenues – not to let it slide into a morass of illegal gambling and, even worse, crimes. He called on authorities to tighten law enforcement without exception.

His remarks were in response to the ongoing operations to stamp out human trafficking and pervasive illegal gambling in the coastal province.

“We’ve spent more than $200 million building infrastructure in Preah Sihanouk, and the approximately $2 billion investment into the [Phnom Penh-Preah Sihanouk] expressway and the revamp of National Road 4 were not meant to serve as some sort of haven for illegal gambling,” he said.

He added that the construction aimed to attract legal investments and tourist dollars in order to generate tax income to build up the entire country, not just for the province.

“There’s no amount of legal investment possible that would make it acceptable for us to permit widespread illegal gambling. Illegal gambling goes untaxed and robs income from the state, unlike legal investments – and thereby preventing those legal investments from finding success – which will eventually cause the loss of a lot of investment capital,” he said.

He explained that before the pouring in money, investors look into every aspect of society including the influx of people, either for the workforce or tourism.

He also instructed the authorities and the police to focus their attention on the government’s priority goals for crackdown – rescue victims in a timely manner; diligently search for all ringleaders and anyone else involved to bring them to justice without exception; inspect suspected locations and collect the evidence required to shut down law-breaking businesses and to extend their investigations to search for money laundering and other related crimes.

Sar Kheng continued that the government intends to make a strong-willed effort to combat human trafficking. From August 18 through September 18, the ministry received a total of 289 complaints from relatives of purported trafficking victims and from embassies and some international organisations relaying requests for help from foreign nationals.

He noted that Preah Sihanouk province alone had received 212 complaints, which constituted the overwhelming majority, followed by Kandal and Svay Rieng with 18; Phnom Penh and Oddar Meanchey with 14 each; Koh Kong with five; Pursat with four; Banteay Meanchey with two and Siem Reap with just one.

“At first, we did not completely believe the information provided in these complaints, but after going through the actual process of investigation, we have unfortunately discovered that the complaints are about 95 per cent true,” he explained.

From August 10 through September 10, he said authorities had investigated 85 cases and found 176 apparent victims of eight nationalities, with Preah Sihanouk province again making up the majority because most of the victims are working in illegal online gambling businesses.

In order to ensure the total success of the operation to combat human trafficking, labour exploitation and sex trafficking, Sar Kheng advised them to stand together and take a united position that places building and developing the nation as the most important goal, which will be accomplished by adherence to the rule of law and will never be based on illegal gambling.

He emphasised that despite having to confront certain challenges, everyone must rightly understand that human trafficking and illegal online gambling are serious crimes, totally immoral in nature, that served only a small number of individuals or their groups at the expense of the public interest.