PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's prime minister said Tuesday he has rescinded his decision to expel an American-led Christian organization that seeks to rescue and rehabilitate women working in the sex trade, accepting its apology and explanation that it did not intend to demean Cambodians.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said the Roseville, California-based group, Agape International Missions, would be allowed to continue its normal operations and that he hoped the group had learned a lesson from the controversy.
Hun Sen ordered the group expelled three weeks ago after its personnel appeared in a CNN report about child prostitution in Cambodia. Hun Sen took offense that the report said Cambodian mothers sold their daughters into prostitution.
He and other officials said the report should have noted that the women profiled were ethnic Vietnamese, rather than Cambodia's mainstream ethnic Khmer. Many Cambodians share a long-established prejudice against Vietnam, a much larger neighboring country that has traditionally been suspected of coveting Cambodian territory and resources.
"This nation is not for insulting," Hun Sen said Tuesday at a forum for conservationists.
Agape International Missions, founded by Don Brewster and his wife Bridget, opened its first center for former child sex workers in 2006, according to the group's website. Brewster of Lincoln, California, described child prostitution in the Svay Pak suburb of Phnom Penh in the CNN story, which was a follow-up to a 2013 report on the same subject.
The website says the group, also known as AIM, "has been granted unique permission by the Cambodian government to conduct investigations, perform raids, make arrests and rescue victims of sex trafficking alongside local government officials within the country of Cambodia."
On Monday, Brewster on behalf of AIM held a news conference at which he expressed his "heartfelt apology" for any offense the CNN report had caused and specifically for its identifying the women profiled as Cambodian.
"Recently, myself and the NGO I led, Agape International Mission, were mistakenly accused of working with CNN to defame the integrity of Cambodian mothers and of not having programs to help the people of Cambodia. Both of these accusations are false," he said. "CNN identified the three girls as Cambodian when in fact they are ethnically Vietnamese. This misidentification was made even though I told CNN the girls were Vietnamese," he said in a statement.
Calls to CNN officials were not answered Tuesday evening. In a statement published by The Cambodia Daily after Hun Sen's original criticism of the program, CNN said it stood by its story, noting that it reported progress in combating child sex trafficking since its previous story.
Hun Sen originally lashed out at both AIM and CNN when he first denounced the broadcast, but on Tuesday pinned the blame on CNN.
His original criticism of AIM had been harsh.
Hun Sen said he "could not accept" the assertion that Cambodian mothers sold their daughters into prostitution.
"My country is poor but you can't insult my people," he said. "This insult cannot be tolerated. No matter what it costs us, this organization has to leave Cambodia."