Last month, Cambodia’s second largest telecom provider Mobitel – operator of the Cellcard network – released a TV commercial poking fun at transgender people and consequently upsetting many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The spot had its debut on the social network Facebook, where it received 323 likes, 144 shares and a mountain of  “LOL’s“ from Cambodian users, who but for one exception found it very amusing.

The commercial, titled “Blind Date“, opens with a young man calling his companion-to-be on a cell phone. He never met her before and with his imagination running wild, he fantasises about a woman one would more likely see in a blockbuster movie than walking down the street. Sadly, he cannot hear her very well – his telephone connection is breaking up. He waits for her at a Cafe where he makes acquaintance with another youth awaiting his sweetheart. The protagonist‘s phone rings again. His date is on the phone, but he still cannot hear her. Finally, the moment of anticipation is over. She arrives and to the visible discontent of the leading character she is not the girl he envisaged. Instead, she is a transgender person. Now his counterpart’s girlfriend enters and she very much fits the part. Before the curtain falls, the young man warns: “to avoid disappointing results like this, choose Cellcard !“ Funny? Not to everyone.

Nuon Sidara, project coordinator at Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), sent a letter to Kith Meng, director of Mobitel (also known as CamGSM), requesting that his company re-edits the commercial to remove the transgender character. Mr. Meng holds a majority stake in Cambodia Television Network, where the ad is aired on a daily basis, and is the CEO of the conglomerate Royal Group – the parent company of CamGSM.

In his letter to the business tycoon, Mr. Sidara argued that referring to disappointing results in the context of relations with transgender people is right out discriminatory. “Even if this video is trying to prove that your company is better than other companies, talking about disappointing results at the end of the commercial discriminates against transgender people. Please re-consider the true meaning of this commercial in order to avoid discriminating against LGBT people and violating their human rights,“ the letter read. Sidara’s appeal is yet to be answered by Kith Meng.

The ad attracted equal condemnation from the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia. In an email to the Asian Correspondent, OHCHR representative Wan-Hea Lee wrote the spot “is an illustration of the general sense that LGBT persons are legitimate targets of ridicule and is best avoided.“ His statement went on to say the OHCHR is concerned about the tone and message of the promo spot “seeing no reason why any group of persons should need to be targeted in that way in order to sell cell phone cards.”

Mobitel declined to comment. As did Phibious advertising agency, which produced the commercial, while CTN spokesman Sokna Hout said all questions should be directed at the telecom provider and not the television network. The Correspondent managed to contact a local filmmaker who was involved in the project. Speaking on conditions of anonymity, he said the transgender community should not take the ad too seriously.

“Should transgender people be offended? They have the right to be, at the same time they shouldn’t take it too seriously; it’s simply another work of fiction. Asian films and TV ads have been using the same joke over and over the past 10-20 years, nothing new I guess,“ he said.

But the joke is getting old, at least for Vong Bunteoun. The 33-year old transgender NGO worker and make-up artist is tired of TV shows and adverts ridiculing the LGBT community. “This commercial and the media generally keep devaluing LGBT persons, and transgender people especially,“ she said. According to Bunteoun, local media sends the wrong message and portrays members of her community as less worthy individuals or criminals. “All you see on TV is either jokes about transgender people or news about transgender criminals. There is never any example of people who can hold a job and lead a regular life,“ she told the Asian Correspondent.

Although the overall attitude towards LGBT persons in the Southeast Asian country is less overtly hostile than in other countries around the world, the OHCHR claims they continue to face stigma and discrimination and experience higher level of domestic and gender-based violence than non LGBT-persons. Srorn Srun, who has been an advocate for LGBT rights in Cambodia for years, said the discrimination takes on a myriad of forms, ranging from difficulties in finding employment, exclusion from one’s family or verbal abuse to violence and sexual assault. He asserts members of the transgender community are often targeted “because their LGBT status is more visible as usually they can be easily physically identified.“

Srorn is adamant discriminatory attitudes towards transgender people in the Kingdom are so deeply entrenched in the social fabric that most take them to be the norm. This state of affairs, he contends, largely stems from lack of education and misinformation. “This discriminatory commercial and similar TV shows prove the media is not educated about LGBT issues, sexual orientation and gender identity as well as human rights,“ he said.

Nuon Sidara of CCHR would like to see that change. However, he asserts eradicating prejudice will be a very slow process that will only yield results if all stakeholders, including relevant ministries, are properly trained. And education is only the very first step, he claims. With no LGBT-specific laws and policies in place, improving the situation on the ground, according to the human rights worker, will take years.

It appears that apart from the Cambodian authorities, companies, such as Mobitel, also have some catching up to do. In fact, respect for LGBT rights has been identified as one of the top ten emerging business and human rights issues by the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), a think tank providing independent analysis on the subject matter.

In her commentary, the Institute’s research fellow on gender, Kathryn Dovey, notes that “businesses headquartered in all regions will increasingly be challenged to clarify their stance on LGBT rights for their employees, customers, suppliers and indeed in the societies in which they operate.“ Reflecting the global shift in mindset regarding the scope of corporate responsibilities, Dovey points out the issue “will increasingly land on the desks of business leaders across the globe.“ In the end of the day, she writes, “this is…a question of dignity and respect.“

Kith Meng declined to comment.