Among the first was a thin American musician with a 1980s-style mop of brown hair, the nom-de-guerre Michael John Koklich, and an alleged penchant for pre-pubescent girls.
He fled police on his motorbike in February, before crashing into their barricade on Sothearos Boulevard, and injuring Phnom Penh’s deputy municipal anti-trafficking police chief in the process.
Belgian national Bessape Philippe, 47, was arrested in a raid on a Phnom Penh guesthouse in April where police found a 13-year-old boy in his bed.
Two Germans were arrested in August—one of whom hurled himself out of a three-story window in an effort to evade authorities. Shortly after, police busted a 68-year-old Swiss man with a naked 13-year-old girl in his hotel room.
On Wednesday, an American was arrested on charges of abusing and filming his abuse of underage girls in his Sihanoukville bar, Tramp’s Palace.
Cambodia seems awash in foreign sex predators. So far this year, police have arrested at least nine foreign men on charges of sexually abusing children.
Police and NGO workers say this is an increase in the number arrested last year, though the figures don’t accurately reflect the actual prevalence of the crime.
Rather, the arrests are due to increased political will, effort and skill on the part of Cambodian police who have for years faced accusations of looking the other way.
Though no one denies there’s still a long way to go, the growing number of jailed pedophiles is just one more indication that perhaps the momentum is finally shifting in the battle to overcome the apathy and corruption that has made Cambodia a haven for the world’s child sexual predators.
“They are more reactive, more willing to work on this,” says Beatrice Magnier, director of anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants.
Says Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior: “The authorities have increased their knowledge and skills after cooperation with NGOs. The implementation of the law gets better from one day to another.”
It’s a trend that’s been in the offing since at least 2000, when Cambodia first launched a major initiative funded by donors aimed at targeting the exploitation of women and children. Police even set up a telephone hotline to receive tips.
In 2002, a department was established in the Interior Ministry specifically devoted to combating human trafficking and child abuse.
Foreign governments too, have become more serious about the problem. In 2003, the US passed the Child Protect Act, which allows the US government to prosecute US citizens in America for crimes against children committed overseas, with penalties that run as high as 30 years in prison. Canada, among other countries, recently enacted a similar law.
Since 2003, Cambodia has arrested and deported at least six Americans to face charges there under the new law—including Koklich.
“Cambodia has become a valuable ally in arresting the worst of all sexual predators, pedophiles,” US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said in an e-mailed statement.
“We are very pleased with the excellent cooperation we have received,” he said.
There are other encouraging signs. For years, pedophiles flocked to Svay Pak, the brothel village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, shamelessly bragging about their exploits over refreshments in coffee shops and bars, and trading information.
NGOs tried in vain to convince Cambodia to do something about the child prostitution, which operated with impunity inside the brothels at Svay Pak. The government finally shut Svay Pak for good in 2004.
Nowadays in the countryside, even in remote areas like Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district, road signs bear the police hotline number and the slogan “Turn a sex tourist into an ex-tourist.”
But even as the county takes steps forward, it continues to take missteps as well.
Police arrested US national Terry Darrell Smith, 55, on July 31. Police confiscated footage featuring Smith, owner of Sihanoukville’s Tramp’s Palace bar, having sex with two young Vietnamese girls, aged 13 and 14.
But late last month, Sihanoukville Municipal Court released him, citing his ailing health—a decision that anti-pedophile NGO International Justice Mission expressed grave concern about.
Police rearrested Smith on Wednesday, and he now faces deportation to the US.
“The policies are improving, but the court is still very weak,” says APLE’s Magnier.
In August, evidence emerged strongly suggesting that Cambodia had granted citizenship to Thomas Frank White, a US multi-millionaire currently in a Mexican prison on charges of child abuse. White apparently received citizenship without meeting any of the official criteria required of foreigners wishing to hold a Cambodian passport.
Nor is White the only known alleged pedophile hoping to find anonymity and a new start in Cambodia.
IJM claimed that Smith is wanted in Oregon on 13 counts of child sexual abuse. And the Belgian, Philippe, had already spent three years in a Belgium prison for abusing three boys aged 14 to 16.
Even with the slight spike in arrests, Cambodia in many ways remains a pedophile’s playground.
Magnier says it’s even more difficult to stamp out and prosecute pedophiles operating in Cambodia’s provinces.
Many perpetrators are residents in Cambodia or long-term tourists who insinuate themselves into the lives of families with children, and become their financial benefactors. After grooming the child, the pedophile begins the abuse, and the financial leverage encourages the family not to take action.
“Generally, by the time they know it’s happening it’s too late,” Magnier says. “They are afraid of losing the relationship. So they keep their eyes closed.”
Often, Magnier says, pedophiles are able to avoid prosecution by buying off the family of their victims.
Many of the most recent cases only came to light because the perpetrators were careless enough to be spotted and reported by groups like APLE.
Despite the rash of recent arrests, some police officials say the situation is not serious.
“The number [of pedophiles] is not going up because we do promotions a lot on radio and in the schools,” says Sun Bunthorng, police chief of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Bureau in Siem Reap province.
“We show the tricks of the bad people,” he added.
In Sihanoukville, Be Sivanna, police chief for anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection, who investigated and arrested Smith, said he expects the number of pedophiles to increase in the dry season, which could mean even more arrests in the coming months.
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