How a Cambodian DJ helped rescue hundreds of girls
Saroeun Sek was a DJ at a club notorious for child sex trafficking in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when he was approached by two men who at first appeared to be ordinary customers.
It was April 2004, and the law student worked every night at the Martini Club playing music while pimps openly brought under-age girls to the club for customers to bargain for sex.
“They came to the DJ counter and tried to chit-chat with me,” Saroeun recalls of a meeting that changed his life.
“The first meeting they just tried to explore my family background, educational background, my salary, my motivation – are you tired of working here? I was open.
“They asked me about the percentage of the girls who were minors inside the club, what is their age, where are they from? They asked me a lot of things, what kind of customers – tourists, businesspeople, Chinese, Taiwanese, even Thai customers – and the identity of the owners.”
As Saroeun openly answered the men, he realised they were not customers at all but anti-trafficking investigators from the newly opened Cambodian office of the International Justice Mission (IJM).
IJM is a Christian NGO that partners with local authorities to rescue victims of violence, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors and strengthen justice systems.
Speaking to Eternity after addressing IJM’s Australian Prayer Gathering in Sydney on March 3, Saroeun gives a powerful testimony of coming to faith while he helped to bring cases against hundreds of criminals responsible for exploiting young girls.
“When I started to work as an undercover, it was scary, and I felt nervous.” – Saroeun Sek
Two weeks later, when the IJM operatives came back, they asked Saroeun if he would be willing to work as an undercover agent to gather intelligence about child sexual exploitation at the club and provide weekly reports.
As a law student, Saroeun was excited about forming a professional relationship with IJM to stop the exploitation of the under-age girls at the club, many of whom “looked like kids.”
But as he signed a contract to work for IJM as an informant on May 3, 2004, he felt nervous about the danger of leading a double life.
“God protected me because I was working there a long time and nobody knew I was the undercover agent.”- Saroeun Sek
“When we signed a contract, the boss said, ‘how do you feel about that?’ I said ‘I feel a bit nervous because I’m afraid that the owner will know about it. He is bad,” says Saroeun. “Then he said ‘OK, if you feel nervous, just read the Bible.’”
Then the IJM team member gave Saroeun a very old Bible with torn pages. Saroeun, a Buddhist, was sceptical about how a book could protect him, but he began to read the Bible every night, along with his law books, while he played music in his DJ booth. Gradually, he began to realise that God’s word in the Bible is true.
“When I started to work as an undercover, it was scary, and I felt nervous. I felt I could have been subject to criminal action by the owner, or by the perpetrators, because I had to build relationships with the perpetrators also.
“Our goal is to rescue the victims, bring criminals to justice, ensure that our survivors are restored and strengthen the public justice system.”- Saroeun Sek
“I had to go between the victim and the perpetrator, and if the perpetrator realised I recorded them, what would happen to me when they are subject to the criminal action against them because they lost their business, they profit from the selling sex of the young girls?”
So as the police used his information to conduct raids on the Martini Club, rescue the girls and arrest the pimps, Saroeun prayed for protection.
“And God protected me because I was working there a long time and nobody knew I was the undercover agent – and there were some scary times when I had to be with the perpetrators before the rescue operations with law enforcement, with our rescue team. Everything was protected by God until now.”
After Saroeun graduated from law school, he began to pray that he could leave the club and work full-time for IJM so that he could draw closer to God and join his mission to his full capacity.
“We pray for clarity, we pray for guidance, we pray for direction, we pray for strong cooperation.”- Saroeun Sek
But Saroeun knew that to leave the club he would have to find someone to replace him, so he prayed that God would identify a new person who could provide intelligence in his place.
He says the foundation of his journey while he was working at the Martini Club was Romans 12:12: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.
“So all the time I still hoped and finally God answered my prayer,” he says.
“First God introduced me to a person who can work in my place to provide information to IJM, and then the second thing, the boss says: ‘come on, you leave – move to the office.’”
Since 2009, as the Director of IJM’s legal department in Cambodia, he has successfully prosecuted 129 people for sexual exploitation. Since 2004, IJM has rescued 748 victims in Cambodia and more than 500 anti-trafficking police officers have been trained.
“We want to rescue millions and protect half a billion by 2030 and make sure that justice for the poor is unstoppable.”- Saroeun Sek
Today, with less than one per cent of prostitution in Phnom Penh involving under-age girls (compared to 15-30 per cent in 2004), IJM in Cambodia has turned its focus to cross-border forced labour trafficking, particularly those involving Cambodians trafficked into the Thai fishing industry. According to the Global Slavery Index, more than 200,000 Cambodians people are living in modern-day slavery. IJM is working alongside the Cambodian and Thai governments to rescue men trapped in the fishing industry, where the prevalence of human trafficking is estimated at 37.9 per cent, along with domestic maids and child beggars.
“As a result of this project, we assisted over 200 labourers and then we secured 18 convictions in 2017 – a 100 per cent success rate,” says Saroeun.
“Our goal is to rescue the victims, bring criminals to justice, ensure that our survivors are restored and strengthen the public justice system.”
“Labour trafficking crime is very covert and complicated, so it has a criminal network from Cambodia to Thailand, from Cambodia to Malaysia. There are multinational criminals, so we’ve been looking to dismantle this kind of criminal network.”
Now, as well as protection, Saroeun prays for clarity.
“The nature of the crime, the criminal network, is covert. But God is the God of light, so he can bring light anywhere the criminal network is, we can pray for him to lead us to identify the victims on the fishing boats.
“Some of my clients are stuck on the fishing boat in the big ocean for seven years. When they first come back to Cambodia they don’t recognise themselves – their mental disorders, the dramas, the physical body is the most broken, that is the reality. So we pray for clarity, we pray for guidance, we pray for direction, we pray for strong cooperation, we pray for rescue, we pray for arrest of the perpetrators and we pray for conviction.
“And we pray for the reduction of those because we want to rescue millions and protect half a billion by 2030 and make sure that justice for the poor is unstoppable.”