PHNOM PENH: When Cambodian-born Tan Saravuth was a refugee in the United States, he molested young boys and went to jail. Yet, when he decided to return to his homeland in 1997, it welcomed him with open arms.
The Kingdom of Wonder, as it calls itself, is more than Saravuth’s native country. As police recently discovered, it was also his hunting ground, where he allegedly preyed on children in remote communities for the past 20 years.
Saravuth, now 47, was arrested in Phnom Penh on Apr 10. He was charged with a number of sex abuse offences and is awaiting trial in Takeo province, where he has been living since 2002. His case has strengthened the belief shared by authorities and child protection experts that paedophiles are shifting their target from vulnerable children in big cities to those in rural areas, where child sexual abuse remains a relatively unknown concept among local residents.
“This change became noticeable in 2010. Previously, paedophiles would target tourist spots, orphanages and NGOs that work with children in big cities. Now, they go to rural areas, live with local communities and offer help by teaching kids English or doing some voluntary work,” said Phay Sopheak, an investigation supervisor at Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE).
Since 2003, the NGO has been assisting police with investigations into child sexual abuse and exploitation in Cambodia. They investigated 192 cases in 2015 and 98 cases the following year. Through its growing network of informants and investigators, APLE managed to alert the police of Saravuth’s suspicious behaviour and triggered probes into his activities last year.
Months of surveillance revealed Saravuth had allegedly abused at least 11 victims - boys aged between 10 and 15 years. All of them are from remote villages in Sre Ronong commune where Satavuth lives. Villagers often saw the man with children but were not suspicious.
According to APLE, the boys were allegedly lured into his room, where they were shown pornography, molested and paid a small sum of money between 400 and 1,500 riels (US$0.1-0.37).
Increasingly, establishments involving children such as schools, homestay guesthouses and juvenile support centres and NGOs in Cambodia’s remote parts are emerging as a new hunting ground for sexual predators.
“Getting access to children is easier in rural areas because people there aren't educated. They don't know what child sexual abuse is or what activity is considered a crime. Even the local authorities don't know much about this problem,” Sopheak explained.
In Takeo, recent events came as a shock to many residents, many of whom knew Saravuth for his generosity. Besides lending people money, the perpetrator also paid for their children’s education, toys and holidays.
For the local residents, his actions appeared to be motivated by kindness and drew admiration. But for juvenile protection experts, they were typical grooming techniques, where a paedophile lures a victim into a sexual relationship and clandestinely maintains it.
According to APLE, grooming is a six-stage process that can take years to achieve. The first step is to target victims and assess their vulnerability. Paedophiles tend to select poor and uneducated families with single mothers. They will then try to gain the child’s trust by building a relationship and, at the same time, evaluating the child’s needs.
Once the trust is given, they will start filling those needs before isolating the victim to be alone with them. And when the victim is ready, sex will be introduced. The paedophiles will then make sure their relationship remains a secret.
“But even though their parents know of the abuse, sometimes they don’t do anything. They’re afraid of losing the financial support and don’t file a complaint,” Sopheak said.
EXTRADITED AND BLACKLISTED
Despite the government’s efforts to eradicate child sexual exploitation, Cambodia is still regarded as an attractive destination for sexual predators and sex tourists. Many paedophiles are said to be operating in the country without fear of arrest, while families and communities hesitate to speak out.
“They think it is not their business to ask questions. This silence provides cover to people who abuse, exploit and rape children,” Iman Morooka from UNICEF Cambodia said, adding many children remain vulnerable due to a lack of robust child protection programme.
Last year, 17 child sexual offenders were arrested in Cambodia, eight of them from Australia, Belgium, India, Netherlands, South Korea and the US. Twenty-one victims were rescued. This year, however, the number of victims had already exceeded 30 by April.
“UNICEF calls on the government to strengthen the capacity of the police to detect and prevent child abuse and for immigration to strengthen border procedures to deny access to people who are identified perpetrators,” Iman said.
But for law enforcement officers, it is easier said than done. Limited cooperation and information sharing between Cambodia and other countries means immigration and police officers are not always informed of sex offenders travelling to their country.
“It’s hard for us to identify who is good or bad. How can we know? Child sexual offenders from overseas can enter Cambodia as tourists or businessmen. We have no idea what they want to do,” Major General Pol Phie They, Director of the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department (AHTJP) of the National Police, told Channel NewsAsia.
As a result, the authorities are putting more efforts to prevent sexual predators from gaining access to the children of Cambodia. According to Maj Gen Phie They, police are cooperating with intelligence agencies and various governments in identifying offenders.
“Convicted paedophiles will be extradited and blacklisted from entering Cambodia. Immigration officers have also been instructed to double check visitors with a criminal record. We also educate the public about child sexual exploitation through various programmes and campaigns.”
One of them is the Community Engagement programme by APLE. Its target participants include local residents in abuse-prone areas. Parents, children, teachers, local authorities and NGO personnel working with youngsters are among those trained to identify signs of grooming and to report suspicious activities through its phone and Internet hotlines.
The programme is also designed to expand APLE’s network of informants – currently made up of nearly 200 members – a covert army of Cambodians who fight to save the children and future of their nation.