Ten Westerners face up to a year in a Cambodian prison after being arrested Thursday near Angkor Wat and accused of pornography and human trafficking for “singing and dancing pornographically.”
The case represents the latest clash between young foreigners who say they were blindsided by morality police and Cambodian officials who have been cracking down in recent years on Westerners they say are failing to respect the country’s mores and sacred spaces.
The singing and dancing in question happened at a popular pool party event Thursday called Let’s Get Wet, according to the Telegraph. The party was in Siem Reap, not far from the country’s Angkor Wat temple complex. Almost 100 people attended, mostly Western tourists and expatriates.
Police arrived about 4 p.m. and started rounding people up, one of the arrested people told the Telegraph. The people taken into custody said they didn’t understand what was going on.
“We’re innocent,” one told the Telegraph, adding that authorities had also been targeting expats wearing bikinis in public and attending pub crawls. “We don’t know why we’ve been arrested — we’re getting different stories from different people.”
Cambodian police attempted to clarify the matter by issuing a news release and posting photos on the department’s official website.
The photos show a group of people dressed but cavorting on the floor in what appear to be simulated sex acts. The authenticity of the photos could not be independently verified. Authorities did not give details about the released images, including when they were taken or who shot them.
In a statement, police said they had detained 77 tourists and 10 organizers, including people who were grilling food at the time. Most of the detainees were sent to “the commission of education” and released, the statement said.
Six of those still in custody are British, two are Canadian, one is from New Zealand, and one man’s nationality was not released.
The prosecutor of the Siem Reap provincial court, Samrith Sokhon, told the Associated Press that the people who took the photos also posted them on social media, in violation of the country’s laws against producing pornography and human trafficking.
“Any people producing pornography is contrary to Cambodia’s traditions,” he said.
If convicted of producing pornographic photos, the accused could be sentenced to a year in prison and fined between $50 and $500, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
A mother of one of the arrested told The Sun that members of the group signed court documents in a language they did not understand in hopes that they would be released.
According to the Telegraph, the mother of one the arrested Britons, 21-year-old Billy Stevens, was heartbroken.
“It’s dreadful,” Marci Harbour, 47, told the newspaper on Sunday. “I’ve managed to speak to him but he’s had his phone taken off him now. They’re all in custody.
“There’s a lot of us parents on it, and I’m in touch with them, but it’s difficult. I’ve been told the more I say the deeper the problem could get and I’m not prepared to speak about it now,” she said.
The British Foreign Office confirmed it is in contact with British nationals in Cambodia, the AP said.
According to The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan, “authorities have clamped down on visitors posting indecent pictures of themselves at the nearby temples in the Angkor Archaelogical Park, which is considered a holy site as well as a major tourism draw.”
But Siem Reap has historically been tolerant of large numbers of backpackers, who come for the history but also participate in the raucous local nightlife and bar scene, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Cambodian authorities have pushed back with increasing force against tourists who do not show the appropriate respect to the nation’s cultural treasures.
At least three times in 2015, a group of tourists was arrested at the Angkor Archaeological Park for taking photos of themselves naked, Kaplan wrote.
At one point, the park issued fliers cautioning tourists to not desecrate the world’s largest religious monument, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
“We have already increased security, but it looks like we need to amplify it more when it seems that some people don’t care about how they offend Cambodian culture,” said Kerya Chau Sun, spokeswoman for the Apsara Authority, which manages Angkor Wat.
And it’s not just Cambodia. People have been arrested for “naked tourism” at Machu Picchu, prompting Peruvian authorities to beef up security. A French-born exotic dancer was deported for stripping at Uluru, the monolithic rock in Central Australia that is sacred to the country’s indigenous people.
“There are places in the world that people can get naked, but not all places are [appropriate] for getting undressed,” Alfredo Mormontoy Atayupanqui, director of archaeological resources for Peru’s Ministry of Culture, told CNN.