Sihanoukville Municipality – 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 behavior.
“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.
She said the man-an extremely pale, overweight Westerner at least 50 years old-was drinking heavily and behaving brazenly.
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.
“People are more careful now-they are not as open as they used to be” in Phnom Penh, he said.
But Dy Many and others alleged that authorities were helping make Sihanoukville a virtual haven 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 Center Executive Director Oung Chanthol said CWCC monitors in Siem Reap find many cases of tourists soliciting sex from children selling souvenirs 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.