Cambodia’s pedophile saga has provided no shortage of headlines in recent months. A Russian investor convicted of buying sex with 17 girls as young as 6 years old had his prison sentence reduced from 17 years to eight, with a chance for early release. A Swede suspected of sexually abusing children was recorded on tape by Swedish journalists, bragging about how easy it would be to bribe his judge for a shortened sentence. And another Brit, who in 2005 went free despite overwhelming evidence that he molested children, is now back in court, having returned to Cambodia seemingly undeterred by the legal system.
But these ignominious developments are actually an improvement over years past. Rewind a decade, and disgraced British glam rocker Gary Glitter led a cast of foreign pedophiles whose presence in Cambodia made the impoverished Southeast Asian country infamous as a refuge for child-sex offenders. Those were days when children were openly sold for sex in Phnom Penh’s Svay Pak district and NGO raids on child brothels were invariably foiled by corrupt police on the take. Lax law enforcement and pervasive local demand for prostitution have long made Southeast Asia a destination for sex tourists of all stripes—and in Cambodia, in particular, the social, economic, and legal foundations that militate against the sexual exploitation of children were shattered by years of debilitating rule and civil strife.
Today, the likes of Glitter no longer can break the law with impunity in Cambodia. Following pressure from local activists as well as the United States, Australia, and some European countries, Cambodia launched a campaign in 2003 to fight its reputation as a pedophile’s carefree playground. By most accounts, the effort has achieved results. Now, articles about arrests of North American and European nationals pepper the pages of the local press. The crackdown and accompanying PR campaign helped lift Cambodia from the gutter of the U.S. human-trafficking watchlist, making the donor-dependent country eligible for a greater variety of direct aid.
“For Western pedophiles, Cambodia is no longer a safe haven,” says Samleang Seila, the head of the local child-protection group Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE). The change is evidenced by a rising number of arrests for “debauchery” and “indecent acts,” which grew from just eight in 2003 to 36 last year, according to APLE. The organization tracks sex tourists, gathers evidence against them and hands their cases over to local police. That’s when things can easily unravel: inexperienced and under-resourced, Cambodia’s police and judiciary are prone to corruption and poor implementation of the law. But despite its shaky foundation, the legal system has made strides, says Joerg Langelotz, of APLE. Case in point: the same judge in the town of Siem Reap who a year and a half ago declined to deliberate on a child-molestation charge because the alleged abuse didn’t exceed fondling has now agreed to hear the case. “There is less complacency and more commitment,” says Langelotz.
As policing improves, Western perpetrators are taking greater cover. In two different arrests involving British men in the past few months, the suspects had founded child-care NGOs that now appear to have been fronts for them to prey on children. Kao Thea, the head of Phnom Penh’s anti–human trafficking and juvenile-protection division, is confident his police officers can stay ahead of the curve. “Now we can stop sexual abuse of children from foreigners who come to Cambodia because we are much more experienced than we were before,” he says. That may be true, but rights groups say a greater scourge has been largely undeterred by the crackdown: a thriving child-sex market fueled by locals.
Among the 141 arrests for “debauchery” and “indecent acts” in Cambodia since 2003, only 37 of the suspects were Cambodian and just 19 were men from other Asian countries, according to APLE. And yet, Western men represent only a minuscule fraction of the population in Cambodia that is sexually exploiting children. According to a report released last month by the juvenile-protection NGO, ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking), the vast majority of former child sex workers say their clients were local men. It may not seem like much of a revelation given the disparity in numbers between Western and local men but, as ECPAT points out, the findings run contrary to “the usually held assumption that pedophilia is a Western problem.”
“Cambodian men prefer beautiful, fair-skinned, and younger-looking sex workers—basically minors,” Chin Chanveasna, head of ECPAT’s Cambodia office, told a conference attended by government and NGO officials in October, adding that sexual exploitation of children by locals is overlooked because of a single-minded focus on targeting Western men. Says Steve Morrish, executive director of SISHA, an NGO that investigates human trafficking: “A lot of the Cambodian men I speak with, they want the young ones and they don’t see it as anything to hide.” Moreover, in Cambodian culture, it is often the reputation of the victim, rather than of the perpetrator, that is blighted. According to a report on Cambodia by Amnesty International released earlier this year, girls who are sexually abused often become outcasts in their community, while convicted offenders face little stigma.
Given the obstacles to changing such widely held attitudes, it’s not surprising the government has targeted Western men, whose crimes are more conspicuous. But, says, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, “Western pedophiles are the low-hanging fruit. Now should come the climb up the tree to catch local sexual abusers of children.”