Out of Cambodia: Hot tempers rise on the seamier side

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The Independent Online
PHNOM PENH - There is a narrow road running along the north of Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh that has become the centre of some of the more nefarious activities of the United Nations in Cambodia. After dark the wooden houses along a half- mile stretch of the road are lit up with Christmas lights. In their flickering glow, hundreds of young women sit around, checking their nail polish and calling out to the men who wander by.

The world's oldest profession has always been represented in Phnom Penh, but with the arrival of 20,000 UN troops and civilians over the past six months, the number of prostitutes has shot up. Most of the women - or more correctly girls, as few seem to be out of their teens - are from south Vietnam, and wear the characteristic floral pyjama suits, with their hair in bobs and cheeks rouged like tomatoes.

They chase after men sitting in cyclos, the bicycle taxis that still ply the roads of Phnom Penh amidst UN Landcruisers, government-owned Mercedes- Benzes and an explosion of privately owned motorbikes. Phnom Penh is a boom town now, and it has drawn a whole cast of pimps, gangsters and shady businessmen from Asia and beyond, determined to make a killing as long as the UN remains in Cambodia.

The girls know that a few nights with an 'Untac' - as the members of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia are called - will keep them in rice for a year. With condoms almost unknown along the street of flickering lights and momentary dreams, their clients are taking home different mementoes to keep. Venereal diseases are present in all their diversity, and already three of the girls have tested HIV-positive.

Alarmed at the spread of diseases, and at the cavalier way in which some of the UN peacekeeping troops were treating women in general in Cambodia, a number of aid organisations brought up the matter with Yasushi Akashi, the head of the UN operation in the country.

The international aid organisations ruled supreme in Cambodia for 10 years before the UN arrived, and resent the fact that they have been so quickly eclipsed as the would-be saviours of the Cambodian people. The burgeoning sex trade crystallised all their anti-UN feelings.

Unfortunately for the UN, Mr Akashi misread the situation, and tried to make light of the whole affair. 'I am not a puritan,' he told the aid workers. 'Eighteen-year-old hot-blooded soldiers who come in from the field after working hard should be able to chase after young, beautiful beings of the opposite sex.' According to an aid worker at the meeting, the whole group was left speechless.

Unaware of the bombshell he had dropped, Mr Akashi flew off to New York for a debate on Cambodia. Meanwhile, aid workers drew up a letter of protest, and when it was submitted to Untac the rapid backpedalling was almost audible.

From now on, declared an offical directive, Untac members should no longer go to 'areas of not very good repute' in official vehicles. And Untac personnel would be encouraged not to wear their uniforms when patronising such establishments - which, under the circumstances, seems somewhat superfluous.

Anyway, the honourable members of the UN now know they must be more discreet. A more highbrow service for those hot-blooded 18-year-olds is now being provided by a Thai massage parlour. Thai massage parlours have never been overly reliant on massage for their income, and it appears that the variety of cultural entertainments imported from Bangkok are going down well in Phnom Penh. The latest innovation is 'dial-a-massage', where a mini-van with the massage parlour's logo on the side will ferry female professionals to one's house or hotel on demand.

Cambodians may not have been expecting the UN to give rise to such a sophisticated level of services as they set about reconstructing the country. But in the Klondike-like atmosphere of Phnom Penh, where the UN is to dispense some pounds 1bn doing its job, it is perhaps inevitable the seamier side of life will rear its head.

Meanwhile, some Cambodians appear to be hitting back at this sort of deviancy - or pretending to. As I left Phnom Penh, the latest story from the field was of an Untac soldier who had been stopped by a group of armed men, ordered out of his vehicle, stripped naked and ordered to march back to the nearest town in his birthday suit. He might have been unpleasantly sunburnt.