Cambodia and specifically human trafficking is an important international development story. Katherine Marshall’s commentary focuses largely on a specific dimension that involves religion: U.S.-linked Christian organizations and communities working directly to combat trafficking. Christianity is a minority faith in Cambodia, but Christian-inspired organizations account for the majority of programmatic and advocacy anti-trafficking efforts underway. It is striking that an evangelical congregation from Middle America could be so active in responding to social maladies half a world away, often more than the local communities themselves. Allen Hertzke, in his influential book Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights (2004), similarly documents how international faith networks mobilize people and resources around human rights and social justice, with trafficking a leading cause.
The international Christian networks make important contributions, but undue focus on their work begs the question: Why is there not a more active or visible Cambodian or Southeast Asian faith-inspired movement to combat human trafficking? Explanations are complex, steeped in historical, social, and cultural experiences. Without delving too far into the whys, one can look at practice, and how to best engage those activities and actors. In particular, increasingly active regional platforms for policy and programmatic engagement, in the Southeast Asia region more generally, offer a potential both to broaden the field of actors and identify significant work below the current policy radars.
As Marshall notes, most Buddhist groups in Cambodia focus less on explicit counter-trafficking work than their Christian-inspired and secular counterparts. The reasons are debated. Some suggest that Buddhism’s acceptance of a certain degree of suffering in life is a factor. Others highlight societal traditions that draw monks more to purely monastic ideals than to the kind of social activism that evangelical anti-trafficking groups exemplify.
There are nonetheless practical examples of Buddhist movements that work directly to combat trafficking. The best known are those involved in the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, inspired in part by Sulak Sivaraksa, which works across the region from its base in Thailand. Other Buddhist-inspired development organizations, such as Buddhism for Development, see themselves addressing the root causes of trafficking, as Marshall notes, through anti-poverty and education work. Exploring their experience and forging stronger partnerships seems a practical way forward.
At the regional level, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is well positioned both to engage faith communities in human trafficking and human rights programming, and to capture the wide ranging work being done by faith communities; actual initiatives, however, have yet to emerge.
Four bodies within ASEAN currently deal directly with human trafficking: the Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights, Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, Committee on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, and the Senior Official Meeting on Transnational Organised Crime. But while ASEAN has agreed to seek a regional commitment to combat human trafficking, progress is slow, and tempered by what I see as an oftentimes over-commitment to non-interference in member states’ domestic affairs and decision-making processes.
ASEAN stresses that wide-ranging partnerships, with private sector, civil society, and international and national organizations, are a core part of its approach but has not engaged religious actors systematically. Given the influence and importance of faith communities within each country and transnationally across Southeast Asia, a large swath of potential partners in anti-trafficking policy is absent from the table.
The discussion of faith dimensions of human trafficking in Southeast Asia and Cambodia specifically is incomplete if it centers on the largely Christian response that has drawn so much international and especially U.S. attention.