Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has spoken to the Cambodian government about the large-scale scam operations that have sprung up in the country, and her concern about the Indonesian nationals who have been trafficked to work in these operations.
In a meeting with Cambodian National Police chief Neth Savoeun in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry stated that Retno “highlighted that the cooperation in preventing human trafficking must be strengthened” between the two nations.
Over the past few years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia has seen an explosion in scam operations that have become centers of human trafficking and forced labor. Run by Chinese organized crime syndicates and operating out of sinister high-rise dormitories, these operations have trafficked huge numbers of Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Filipino workers and forced them – sometimes under threat of beatings and torture – to perpetrate a range of online scams.
As Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern noted in a detailed investigation published this week in The Diplomat, these workers were nearly all “duped by offers of well-paid, legitimate work, only to find themselves imprisoned in horrifying conditions by Chinese gangsters.”
According to a statement from Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, Retno, who was accompanied by several members of the Indonesian National Police, called for the two nations to establish closer law enforcement cooperation, as well as “cooperation in taking preventive steps so that similar cases do not happen again.” She also met with 62 Indonesian victims of “fraud and trafficking” who were rescued last month from a scam compound in Sihanoukville. The statement added that similar cases had been coming to Jakarta’s attention since 2021.
The meeting between Retno and Neth Savoeun is a sign that the problem of scam operations has become so bad that it is beginning to pose diplomatic complications for the Cambodian government. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry reported that the Cambodian police chief “conveyed his full commitment to providing cooperation” in fighting human trafficking. A police spokesperson quoted by the local media outlet Voice of Democracy said that other nations have made similar requests to the Cambodian police.
Of course, diplomacy complicates any open mention of the likely collusion of Cambodian government officials with the Chinese concessionaires that run these operations and with property developments that are known or suspected scam compounds. As alleged in an unsettling recent documentary by Al Jazeera, prominent tycoons and business allies of Prime Minister Hun Sen are connected in direct and indirect ways to the scam operations that have exploded in Sihanoukville and other parts of Cambodia, as well as the casinos and online gambling operations that preceded them.
Perhaps not coincidentally, as the local media outlet Voice of Democracy reports, Cambodian police officials have generally “downplayed abuses reported at scam operations in the country, including minimizing accounts of forced labor and detention as contract or labor disputes.”
All of this suggests that while the Cambodian government should have good reasons to clamp down on these operations, beginning with the basic duty that it owes its people, there are likely powerful economic interests standing in the way.