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They were a bit more elegantly dressed and better coiffed than the rest, but their job was the same. They were former karaoke girls, now forced to work as prostitutes in the park. Now the customers take me back to their homes.
Sometimes they beat me or curse at me. The response has been a breathtaking demonstration of the unquestioned obedience the prime minister can inspire. The vast majority of establishments—more than 1, in Phnom Penh alone, many of them legal and licensed—have complied. No police crackdown was required. Many bars have survived the ban by closing their private rooms, where men sang with, fondled and arranged sexual liaisons with the women, then reopening as massage parlors or restaurants with karaoke machines, both of which are still allowed to operate.
But without the private rooms, business at Seven Stars has decreased 70 percent, and the foreign businessmen and tourists who used to crowd the restaurant have disappeared, Lim Pheng said. Other nearby bars that have remained open reported similar declines in business. It is too early to tell whether the ban has led to a decrease in crime or prostitution.
For now, the only certain result is that an estimated 30, karaoke employees have lost their jobs. Tuol Kok and Svay Pak, and some are beer girls. A hostess supervisor at the MegaClub just off Monivong Blvd, which lost 50 girls, said many had gone home to their farming villages in the provinces. They have no money, so I guess they go home and eat grass, like the cows. Many former karaoke girls would like to go back home, but must continue sex work to support their families, according to Dy Ratha of the Indradevi Association, a nonprofit group which provides health services for sex workers.
She said she had seen new women in each brothel she has visited since the karaoke closures. Some were still cruising for customers at restaurants and bars, she said; others had become waitresses at Kien Svay restaurants. Karaoke girls—who depend more on tips or salary than direct payment for sex—typically earn about twice as much as their prostitute counterparts, Green said. They also have more discretion in choosing their sex partners. As a result, twice as many brothel workers about 30 percent are infected with HIV compared to karaoke girls, according to Green.