Published August 16, 2006
BANGKOK, Thailand – It's a photo that has become a staple in the tabloids of Southeast Asia: the foreigner taken in by police after being caught in bed with a local boy or girl.
For many of the region's countries which derive huge sums of money from the tourism trade, it's a vivid illustration of its seamiest side — child sexual exploitation.
The spotlight was on Thailand Wednesday after a man suspected in the slaying of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was arrested here in a surprise breakthrough a decade-old U.S. case that some feared would never be solved.
U.S. officials identified the suspect as John Mark Karr, a 42-year-old American, and said he was already being held in Bangkok on unrelated sex charges.
In countries such as Thailand, child sexual exploitation builds on a long-standing and vast prostitution industry, and thrives where law enforcement is weak or corrupt. That sex with young teens is not a strong taboo in some Asian cultures makes fighting the problem even more difficult.
Poverty-stricken Cambodia in recent years has become new frontier for pedophiles for this very reason. The arrests of aging British rock star Gary Glitter — real name Paul Francis Gadd — first in Cambodia and then in neighboring Vietnam put a rare international spotlight on the matter, though new cases come to court virtually every month.
In June, Glitter's child molestation conviction and three-year prison sentence were upheld by an appeals court in Vietnam. He had been found guilty of committing obscene acts with girls ages 10 and 11 at his rented seaside villa in southern Vietnam.
"This case sends a strong message to child sex offenders around the world that society will not tolerate any form of sexual violence and exploitation of children," said Carmen Madrinan, executive director of the Bangkok-based child protection group ECPAT International.
Vietnam does not have the reputation of Cambodia as a haven for sex tourism, but recent surveys by the government and the U.N. Children's Fund indicate that child prostitution, including child sex tourism, is on the rise, Le Hong Loan, head of UNICEF Vietnam's child protection section, said earlier this year.
"I think the case of Gary Glitter is a historic case for Vietnam so it can be more vigilant about the situation of sex tourism," Loan said.
In Cambodia, There are about 33,000 child sex workers, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency. The U.S. State Department has listed Cambodia as among the world's worst nations at adequately addressing human trafficking problems, including the trade of child sex workers.
A strong example of the measures being taken against child sexual exploitation came just two months ago, when a Los Angeles man deported from Thailand pleaded not guilty in a U.S. court to traveling to the Southeast Asian nation to engage in illicit sexual activity.
Steven Erik Prowler was deported from Thailand in May after completing one-year prison sentence for molesting 15-year-old and 16-year-old boys.
According to a U.S. criminal complaint, he told authorities he often paid Thai children the equivalent of $5 for two hours of sexual contact.
The charges were brought under the U.S. Child Protect Act, adopted in 2003 to facilitate tracking sexual predators across international borders.
About 20 Americans alleged to have engaged in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places have been prosecuted under the law since 2003, according to U.S. authorities.
President Bush signed the Protect Act on April 30, 2003. Before the act took effect, prosecutors were required to prove that a person traveled to a foreign country with the intent of having illicit sex, but the new law requires prosecutors to show merely that the person engaged in or attempted to engage in such acts.
In an address to the United Nations shortly after signing the law, Bush stressed the importance of combatting illegal sex tourism and trafficking, and made specific reference to the provision of the Protect Act.
"The victims of sex trade see little of life before they see the very worst of life: an underground of brutality and lonely fear," Bush said. "Those who create these victims and profit from their suffering must be severely punished."