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Cambodia outlaws ‘sham’ marriages – is Phuket next?

Legacy Phuket Gazette



PHUKET: If you are a non-Khmer male and over the age of 50, or make less than US$2,500 a month – and you’re seeking a bride – roughly five million women of marrying age have now been put off-limits for you.

If you’re a Khmer woman, you have, as of this month, effectively been denied the right to freely choose a spouse as enshrined in international human rights law.

On March 7, 2010, the Cambodian government issued the new marriage requirements which have been touted as a crackdown on “sham marriages” and human trafficking.

Government spokesman Koy Kuong explained: “We are preventing fake marriages and human trafficking,” adding that the government had knowledge of cases where Cambodian women were sent into prostitution or “used as slaves” in their husband’s home countries.

He also said that couples should “look like a real couple, not like granddaughter and grandfather”.

The reason for salary requirements is to ensure “Cambodian women can live a decent life,” Mr Koy said.

According to World Bank statistics, the poverty line in Cambodia is about US$0.45 per day, per person, below which an estimated 35 per cent of the population lives. If a Khmer woman makes more than US$14 a month, she is living above the poverty line, and – according to the government – if her husband makes at least US$2,500 a month, her life can be “decent”.

Is this a joke?

“When I first heard this news story, I literally thought it was a joke. But in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, I have come to realize that fact is often stranger than fiction, and every time I read a new rationale for this policy put forth by a Cambodian government spokesman, I just have to shake my head in disbelief,” Phil Roberts, Deputy Director Asia for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said.

“Even when the Cambodian authorities say they are doing something to protect human rights, they come out with laws and policies that do precisely the opposite, resulting in more violations of human rights,” he said.

HRW has urged the Cambodian government to “scrap this policy” which is in violation of the country’s international humanitarian law commitments, as it limits women’s rights and singles out foreign men, Mr Robertson said.

“It is particularly disconcerting that this policy is being justified as somehow contributing to the fight against human trafficking, when in fact I expect it will have no appreciable impact whatsoever on ending trafficking,” he said.

“The vast majority of trafficking cases that happen to Cambodian women occur to those crossing borders illegally to work in neighboring countries, who are then duped into human trafficking situations – sometimes for forced labor, sometimes for sexual exploitation – and the Cambodian government is doing little to help them.

“When you don’t have an effective anti-trafficking policy to help Cambodian women overseas in Thailand, Malaysia or elsewhere, the government then plays a game with a nonsense policy like this to divert attention, blame a small group of foreigners and restrict the rights of Cambodian women,” Mr Robertson said.

“The ban is akin to hitting a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Thoughts From Thailand

“This law will not help stop human trafficking – why does it single out foreign men over 50 as the ones doing something illegal?,” said Nilwadee Siriput, a recent graduate of Prince of Songkla University.

“It’s not fair to the couple – a couple that really love each other and want to live the rest of their lives together. The governments [Cambodian and Thai] should provide more education about working abroad to people if they want to cut down on human trafficking,” she said.

“I think the Thai government should promote more awareness of human trafficking in rural areas like my hometown [Patthalung] – especially about ‘sex trafficking’, so that women cannot be so easily lured into the industry,” she added.

Chan Lon, a young professional from Burma who works as a trainer for Burmese journalists and hosts a radio program for Voice of America in Chiang Mai, told the Phuket Gazette, “Women can be victims of human trafficking in so many different ways, not only because of marrying an older foreign man.”

Chan Lon, like Nilwadee, felt that it was strange the Cambodian government would assume foreign men over the age of 50 are worth targeting as possible human traffickers.

The Thai government would not do well to follow the policies of its eastern neighbor but “should take necessary steps to protect women – especially those from other countries who are here illegally – from being victims of human trafficking and not impose a law that is impossible to enforce,” she said.

“It would be more effective if the government could provide safe and secure living conditions by creating job opportunities for women in Thailand and educate them about human trafficking.”

Would Thailand do such a thing?

“I think the Thai government is smart enough to recognize the serious shortcomings of this Cambodian initiative and the fact that it is discriminatory and will not work,” Mr Robertson said.

“Frankly, I don’t think Thai women and the women’s rights movement would permit such a ban to come into place here because they would say, ‘It’s my life, it’s my decision, and I will marry who I want’.”

“And they are right – the right to marry is a core human right. The fact that such a policy would most likely be universally condemned in Thailand says a lot about the important gains the women’s rights movement has made in Thailand and casts a spotlight on how far the Cambodian women’s rights movement still has to go,” he said.

“The Thai government has set out policies requiring that foreigners who marry Thais must have a certain level of income to qualify for a special ‘spouse visa’, but if the foreigner doesn’t have the money, that does not prevent them from marrying.

“This does not violate any international human rights standards that I can see. If the foreigner does not have the money to qualify for a spouse visa, it just means they have to go back and forth on whatever temporary visa they can get in order to stay with their Thai spouse,” Mr Robertson said.

— Nicholas Altstadt


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