Cambodian PM to expel NGO over TV program on sex workers

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's prime minister on Tuesday ordered the ouster of an American-led Christian organization that seeks to rescue and rehabilitate women working in the sex trade, saying its comments in a TV report last week demeaned the country.

The report by CNN showed the head of the Agape International Mission, Don Brewster of Lincoln, California, describing child prostitution in the Svay Pak suburb of Phnom Penh. The report was a follow-up to a 2013 story on the same subject.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, speaking at a graduation ceremony, singled out the program's reporting that Cambodian mothers sold their daughters into prostitution as particularly insulting, although the 2013 story by CNN had previously reported that. The new report also showed Brewster declaring that Svay Pak's child prostitution problem had improved.

Representatives in Cambodia for Agape, or AIM, could not be contacted for comment.

Much of the controversy involved the ethnicity of the three young women the CNN report focused on. They appeared to be ethnic Vietnamese rather than Cambodia's mainstream ethnic Khmer. Many Cambodians share a long-established prejudice against Vietnam, a much larger neighboring country that has traditionally been suspected of coveting Cambodian territory and resources.

Hun Sen said he "could not accept" the assertion that Cambodian mothers sold their daughters into prostitution.

"My country is poor but you can't insult my people," he said. "This insult cannot be tolerated. No matter what it costs us, this organization has to leave Cambodia."

His government's Women's Affairs Ministry issued a statement Tuesday night charging that AIM had manipulated the story in order to raise funds.

It said the young women interviewed in the report were not Cambodian and had a different culture and traditions than Cambodians. The program, it said, affected the honor and reputation of Cambodians.

"No matter how poor they are, under Cambodian culture and tradition we have never sold our daughters," the statement said.

AIM, founded by Brewster and his wife Bridget, opened its first center for former child sex workers in 2006, according to the group's website.

It says "Agape International Missions has been granted unique permission by the Cambodian government to conduct investigations, perform raids, make arrests and rescue victims of sex trafficking alongside local government officials within the country of Cambodia."

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