Ochateal beach was a raucous party on Saturday night, filled with Christmas music, drinking and dancing on the sand. Trailing the throngs of local and Western tourists were dozens of poor children, selling nuts and fruit - and, visiting NGO workers said, engaging in more dangerous behaviour.
"I and my three other friends saw a foreign man sitting in the middle of four boys, aged between 12 and 16 years. I saw, with my own eyes, that man putting his hand into the boy's pants," Action Aid International Program Officer Dy Many said following the incident. He groped each of the boys accompanying him, lingering on the beach for more than half an hour until he was deterred by staring beachgoers, she said.
NGO workers say the sight of Western adult men inappropriately touching Cambodian youths has become distressingly common at Sihanoukville's beaches and at other tourist spots in Cambodia.
Thierry Darnaudet, president of the anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants, said foreign pedophiles in Phnom Penh have largely gone underground in the wake of convictions of several Westerners in the past several years. Now, he said, NGOs are trying to find out exactly where the child-sex tourists are.
But Dy Many and others alleged that authorities were helping make Sihanoukville a virtual havan for child-sex tourists by turning a blind eye to child-sex tourism there. They said that, even when they sighted abuses such as Saturday's, they could find no police to whom to report them.
Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre Executive Director Oung Chanthol said CWCC monitors in Siem Reap find many cases of tourists soliciting sex from children selling souvienirs at Angkor. Both Darnaudet and Oung Chanthol said abusers are sometimes tourists, but they are more likely to be expatriates residing in Cambodia long-term. "Now, it is mostly residents," Darnaudet said. Darnaudet described a typical child-sex tourist as a full-fledged pedophile, someone who is obsessed with children and comes to Cambodia intending to seek them out.
Children range from those who are genuinely tricked or forced, to a larger contingent of savvy children working on the streets or on the beaches, who seek out pedophiles hoping for quick profit, he said. "At the end of the day, after so many years of pedophilia in Cambodia, after 15 years, the kids know what the business is," Darnaudet said.
But Oung Chanthol said that in many cases reported to CWCC, pedophiles preyed on victims' poverty. "In many cases, foreigners went to villagers and offered money to the families or said they wanted to adopt the girl. And we find many cases where foreigners promise to marry a girl and support her family, but then stay for only one week," she said.
In these cases, the foreigner may befriend the child's family with money and gifts in order to gain their trust and prevent them from pursuing complaints, she said. Now, APLE, CWCC and other NGOs are working with the Ministry of Tourism and the police toward raising awareness and implementing existing laws that make sex with children under 15 years old a crime carrying a minimum 5-year sentence.
But observers complain that police, guesthouse owners and even parents are not doing enough to protect children. "It's all about building relationships with law enforcement and making the law enforcement aware of this problem," Darnaudet said. "For Cambodians and the police, they maybe have other things to do and they don't think that this is a priority."
But the chief of Sihanoukville's Tourism Police, Srey Vuthy, explained his department did not have the capacity to make tough moves against pedophiles. Police earn only $35 per month and are not reimbursed even for their gasoline, he said, so they could not investigate reported cases. "We have only 20 tourism police for the whole municipality. The tourism site is big, so how do we keep an eye on the sexual harassment of children?" he asked.
Sihanoukville Municipality has passed some of the responsibility on to hotel and guesthouse owners, ordering them to post signs in each room warning sex tourists. Golden Castle Hotel owner Sok Song said he had told his staff to monitor guests who bring children to the hotel, but he admitted such policies could not always be enforced. "As hotel business operator, we need to make a profit. We aren't really strict with foreign guests," Sok Song said. The Ministry of Tourism, which launched a Child Safe project in collaboration with NGOs this year to combat child sex tourism, has organized workshops to train police, parents and those in the hospitality and tourism industries on the issue.
Hor Sarun, director of the ministry's Anti-Exploitation Project, said the ministry was still trying to ascertain what percentage of the 1.3 million tourists visiting Cambodia this year were sex tourists. "Our government policy states very clearly that sex tourism is not encouraged, but cultural and nature tourism are," he said. "Anyone having sex with underage children violates our law and will face jail."
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