Cambodian police have arrested a record number of foreigners suspected of preying on children for sex in the last 15 months, pointing to rapid progress in the enforcement of laws against pedophilia, police and activists say.
"I think police have become more sensitized, and are fed up with people coming to have sex with kids," said Pierre Legros, director of the group Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances, known by its French acronym AFESIP, which helps child victims of sexual exploitation.
From the beginning of last year through this month, Cambodian police arrested at least 16 suspected foreign pedophiles -- up from eight in 2002. The men came from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the US and were mostly charged with debauchery, a Cambodian legal term for sexually abusing minors.
Faced with pressure from groups such as AFESIP, the government also has begun taking tentative steps to prevent the crimes, and activists say the message is finally being sent out that Cambodia is no longer a pedophile's safe haven.
Starting next month, authorities will start asking tour groups, guesthouses and hotels to report suspicious child sex activities, said Deputy Tourism Minister Thong Khon.
Already, tourism pamphlets stacked in the arrival areas of Phnom Penh's international airport contain warnings against sex with children.
"We welcome tourists ... but not sex tourists or child sex tourists. They mess with our law, they'll be thrown in jail," Thong Khon said.
Most pedophiles in Cambodia either live here or frequently visit the country specifically to exploit children because of Cambodia's weak law enforcement, and because it is cheaper to buy sex here than in other countries.
"If all of them were to be caught, there may not be enough space for them" in prisons, said Hang Vibol, director of Action Pour Les Enfants (Action for Children), a French group focusing on pedophilia.
Lawlessness and corruption are part of daily life in Cambodia, recovering from three decades of conflict and the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge genocide. Extreme poverty has pushed many girls into prostitution. Rapes of young girls are reported regularly in local newspapers.
Cambodia's cash-strapped government banks on tourism to generate money for development, and foreigners are rarely scrutinized closely for their background.
The capital, Phnom Penh, beach town Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, site of the 9th-14th century Angkor temples, are "the main pedophile areas" because of the high number of foreign visitors, said Christian Guth, a consultant with UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency.
Before 2000, pedophiles enjoyed "a good time because there was no real police action against them," said Guth, who advises the Interior Ministry on how to train and equip police to deal with human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
The project, which has received about US$250,000 a year in funding from the Netherlands since 2000, began making progress after special police units were created two years ago in Phnom Penh and six provinces, Guth said.
Before police received the training, they seemed to have little idea of what constitutes sexual abuse against minors and thus were often reluctant to act when asked for help, said Hang Vibol of Action Pour Les Enfants.
He recounted an incident several years ago in which a French man allegedly paid 10 boys to perform acts of bondage on him. The French agency took one boy to the police, but no action was taken against the man, Hang Vibol said.
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