National Police arrest online seller Thai Srey Neang in Cambodia, Feb. 20, 2020. (Facebook/Official Page of Phnom Penh Police)
National Police arrest online seller Thai Srey Neang in Cambodia, Feb. 20, 2020. (Facebook/Official Page of Phnom Penh Police)

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Ing Chhorvy sits in a two-room condominium in Phnom Penh's upscale Tuol Kork district. The 38-year-old mother of five is neither the owner of the condo nor does she live there, but the developer wants mortgage payments for the posh unit her cousin owns.

Ing Chhorvy is worried about her children's future after the arrest of her cousin, Ven Rachana, who went by Thai Srey Neang on Facebook and owns the condo.

"The important thing is that she is the breadwinner of the family. When she is imprisoned, what else do we have?" said Ing Chhorvy, who lives in Phnom Penh's Tuol Sangke commune.

Ven Rachana sold women's clothes and cosmetics on a Facebook page called the Thai Srey Neang Online Shop. Every day, she posted pictures of her products or went live on Facebook to sell them.

She is one of the many Cambodians who use Facebook, a platform synonymous with the internet in Cambodia, to sell items from food products to medications with almost everything under the sun in between.

The sellers can be seen on Facebook working hard to find buyers. They model their products for viewers, answer viewer queries and then direct potential buyers to payment methods.

However, on February 18, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a clampdown on female online sellers for dressing too "sexy" while selling their products. The prime minister was speaking at the National Council of Women when he ordered the police to raid the homes of female online retailers, purportedly because they were sullying Khmer culture.

"As described in Khmer literature, the Khmer woman must remain virtuous to uphold the image of her family," wrote Elizabeth Chey on Mekong.net. "She is required to speak softly, walk lightly and be well-mannered at all times."

The Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct for girls and women, was taught in Cambodian schools until 2007, and the concept "is embedded in people's minds," Catherine V. Harry told VOA Cambodia in September 2018.

So in a country that remains deeply conservative about social mores, it was not a complete surprise when the police acted on Hun Sen's orders and arrested Ven Rachana.

Ing Chhorvy said she had invested $5,000 in Ven Rachana's online shop and was using some of the profits from online sales to run her household. She said Ven Rachana was the face of the online shop, ensuring the enterprise cleared $7.50 to $10 a day. On better days, the shop could earn $50 a day. In 2017, the average household income in Cambodia was $1,376.

But with Ven Rachana in pretrial detention, Ing Chhorvy is having to deal with the bank about mortgage payments, and she can't afford legal representation for her cousin.

"They want to cut off the electricity," she said, referring to the condo developers who sold Ven Racha the property. "They said if we don't have money to pay, they will confiscate [the condo]."

"We rarely go live [on Facebook] now, so we can't do business and there is nobody coming to buy [the products]," she added.

With little hope for a legal resolution, Ven Meta, Ven Rachana's sister who lives in Stung Treng province, said the family was hoping for authorities to resolve the issue before it escalated into a full criminal charge.

Online seller Thai Srey Neang was arrested by National Police of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 20, 2020. (Courtesy Photo)

According to police reports, a day before Ven Rachana's arrest, she had been summoned to a local police station and "educated" about her clothing choices. The police then had her sign an agreement to refrain from posting "sexy" pictures and videos. In a video posted to Facebook by the police, she apologizes for wearing clothing "which disgraces Khmer traditions" and "affects the honor of Cambodian women," according to Amnesty International

But that night Ven Rachana resumed her allegedly provocative sales pitches on Facebook, leading to her arrest shortly after. Released hours later, police said Ven Rachna was re-arrested after posting a photo of herself in her underwear hours after being released.

Authorities have charged her with pornography under Cambodia's 1996 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation

They also charged Ven Rachna with exposure of a sex organ under Article 249 of the Criminal Code, according to Amnesty International. She was then sent to pretrial detention in Phnom Penh's CC2 prison. The combined charges could result in up to 15 months' imprisonment, according to Amnesty.

Van Meta said the family requested leniency for their breadwinner.

"We were trying hard to make this request, but they didn't release her," said Ven Meta, 42, whose two daughters live with Ven Rachana.

Ven Meta said she was worried about mounting expenses, especially outstanding payments for the condominium, which now totaled around $2,000.

The condo developers have started "to ask for money, saying that if there is nobody living there or is not paying the money, they will not let us to keep the home," Ven Meta said, adding that before her arrest, Ven Rachana lived in the condo with the two nieces and two sales assistants.

Hun Sen's order has come under scrutiny from human rights groups. His assertion that "sexily" dressed women were aggravating the issue of sexual exploitation came under fire as a case of "victim-blaming." Victim-blaming suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for an alleged crime. 

Amnesty International's Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said, "These transparently trumped-up charges are an affront to gender equality and make a mockery of the rule of law. The arbitrary nature of Ven Rachna's arrest and the discriminatory abuse of her freedom of expression represent a troubling regression in the state of women's rights in Cambodia."

A coalition of women's rights advocates and groups released a statement February 19 questioning the legal basis to arrest or even educate women for their choice of clothing, and suggestions that women's appearance in public affected Khmer culture.

"Furthermore, there is no deep study to prove that the way of woman dressing clothes is the cause of creating the deficit of social morality," the statement read.

Seng Reasey, executive director of the local rights group, Silaka, questioned how a celebrity could post pictures in a bikini and not upend so-called social morality, but that someone lower on the socioeconomic ladder could be arrested for dressing "sexy" and affecting cultural and societal norms.

"When they are celebrities, it seems to be no problem. Or is this done because action is being taken against someone of a different status," said Seng Reasey, adding that neither the bikini-clad celebrity nor the online seller should face criminal action.

Suong Nary, 25, just started her own online business on Facebook, selling products such as lotions. She said she was concerned by Ven Rachana's arrest and imprisonment but was quick to add that she did not use "sexy" sales tactics on her Facebook page.

A successful business "depends on our words and our products, which are the main requirements to make sales," she said. "I don't believe that we have to do Facebook Live."

Back in Tuol Kork, Ing Chhorvy is keen for Ven Rachana to be released and resume selling products on Facebook, her mounting economic desperation seemingly making it hard for her to consider that her cousin could go back to jail.  

"We hope that there is someone coming to help, so she can be released soon," she said. "If she comes, we will be able to continue our living because we have many children."