sihanoukville – While the largest pedophilia court case in Cambodia’s history against Russian businessman Alexander Trofimov languishes in the Sihanoukville Municipal Court, the issue of child abuse is resting heavy on the local community at this busy tourist town.
There are signs throughout Sihanoukville, both literal and otherwise, warning against abusing children.
A billboard facing the city’s golden lion traffic circle depicts a pair of giant handcuffs and declares: “One size fits all.”
Posters pasted around the town also indicate businesses where staff members have been trained in methods to spot potential child abusers. And many hotels and guesthouses have the text of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking law posted in highly visible locations.
But Sihanoukville remains one of the country’s primary hotspots for the sexual exploitation of children, said a representative of the US-based International Justice Mission, which tackles pedophilia worldwide.
“I think our major problems are in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, in that order, and that’s not to say it’s not happening anywhere else. Koh Kong is also a major concern,” said the IJM staff member who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his work.
“The main offenders we come across in our investigations are Cambodians, or they are from wealthier Asian countries, while some other NGOs concentrate on foreigners, and that is an issue as well,” he continued.
Maggie Eno, coordinator of M’Lop Tapang, a Sihanoukville-based organization that works with street children, agreed that the country’s main seaside resort has a serious problem with child abusers.
“Sexual abuse is a big problem here,” Eno said.
“The victims are both male and female, and the service we have for these children are improving the situation, but they are still being abused…. People are still coming here to abuse children, and people in the Khmer community abuse children as well,” she said.
Local government officials also acknowledge that pedophiles are a problem in Sihanoukville, but the harm they do is of national importance.
“Child abuse exists in our generation. It is a problem that could affect our reputation, our culture and customs,” Sihanoukville Governor Sboang Sarath said.
He also said that the municipality’s police have been cracking down seriously on pedophilia here since 2001.
That pedophiles are being drawn to Sihanoukville is disturbing, many locals said.
“It could become a sex tourism destination, like Thailand, if we don’t stop it,” said Tat Sokeatha, 27, a receptionist at the Leng Meng Bungalow on O’Chheuteal beach.
An employee at Ana guesthouse and restaurant, Cheang Kuong You, 21, agreed: “Sick tourists affect our business, because it might mean good tourists don’t come to Sihanoukville because there is a reputation of being a sex tourists’ site,” he said.
As a result, Cheang Kuong You said he feels a duty to report pedophiles.
“I want to help Cambodian society and Cambodian children. If I don’t do it, it means we ignore our own people,” he said.
Sok Ry, 39, said she feels the same way, but the issue hits even closer to home for her. Two of Sok Ry’s four children sell souvenirs on Sihanoukville’s beaches seven days a week.
“I told my daughters that if a barang [Westerner] talks to you a lot, touches you or gives you a lot of money, you should get away from them because they are a bad barang,” she recounted.
Bith Kimhong, director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-trafficking unit, said authorities are using the media to tackle abusers.
“We have broadcast information through the mass media to educate about dangerous activities and crack down on crime,” he said.
“We have also advised the guesthouse and hotel owners—in every province, not only in Sihanoukville—to prohibit children from sleeping [with strangers] as well as informing the police.”
During the first six months of 2008, police investigated 66 cases of child abuse involving children under the age of 15, Bith Kimhong said, adding that those investigations resulted in 69 arrests.