The following is a story from the Bangkok Post that apperared yesterday, Sunday 27 August. Because the Post’s links go bad after a few days, I’m printing the entire article here.
In the swirling media cesspool of the John Karr return to the United States on possible charges of murdering JonBenet Ramsey, publications across the globe, but especially in the United States, opted to use a hackneyed old saw as an angle to their reporting: Thailand a sex pervert and paedophile’s paradise.
While I’ve written about the “loser’s paradise” aspect of Bangkok, with Soi Cowboy, Patpong and other areas that are pretty openly selling sex to whatever pink, overweight westerner wants to buy it, I think that it is a disservice to the Thai people to report this angle while ignoring, or not bothering to report, on the efforts that have been taken to stem this tide.
So here is Erika Fry’s story about the way Khrungthep has been portrayed:
Thailand under a familiar glare
The arrest of John Karr has revived depictions of Bangkok in the international press as a place where even the most taboo of perversions is easily satisfied, but in fact a lot of progress has been made in shutting down the child sex market in Thailand, writes ERIKA FRY
The way “Purple” is going to spend his five-hour layover at Don Muang Airport was up for discussion at InternationalSexGuide.com earlier this week. By the end of an afternoon his ambitious plan to get to NEP (Nana Entertainment Plaza) and get a girl in five hours or less, has drawn a handful of comments and helpful hints, and been resoundingly rejected by the ISG online community.
He has underestimated the delays of Bangkok traffic and Thai immigration lines, chides one poster. He has not allotted time for currency exchange or the 15 minutes it takes the girl to get dressed, says another. One fellow suggests he save time and just arrange for a girl to be at the airport hotel.
But the matter isn’t completely settled until Senior Member (32 previous posts) “Wolf”‘ breaks in with a post that says “Purple’s” best bet is to skip NEP, skip the pre-arranged tryst at the airport hotel, and skip on up to an MP (massage parlour) on the second floor of Don Muang, where, with a wink and the shucking of his clothes, he can get a girl without even leaving the airport.
That these matters are known, that these matters are discussed, and that these matters command the energies and attention of at least five different individuals on a Tuesday afternoon says something about the nature of sex tourism and the sex tourist in Thailand.
The Thailand file folder on InternationalSexGuide.com is stuffed full with 40,000 such posts (twice that of the next most-commented-on sex destination, China, and 40x that of most other Asian countries).
Who has this kind of time?
Yet as sex websites go, this one is incredibly benign. There are no naked pictures, no comments trying to lure young children into sex. There are even rules, asking vaguely for “general politeness” and strictly for grammatical precision (standard capitalisation and full spelling of the word “you”, a must). It is a comment board – a space for sex tourists to swap stories (some in tedious bar-by-bar detail) or simply share information on the best places to eat in Pattaya.
The monitor, a strict grammarian, but apparently not a strict linguist, calls the site somewhat redundantly, a “permanent archive of travel records.”
That there is the kind of interest to maintain such an archive speaks to the more-notorious-than-ever zeal with which some regard Thailand as a destination (or as for “Purple”, a destination between destinations) for sex.
Thailand has taken a lot of heat for this image in recent weeks. Ever since American JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect and paedophile, John Karr, was discovered to be living in Bangkok, foreign media has made much of why he had chosen to live in Bangkok.
In just several days, and in far more reports, Bangkok was branded a haven for sex tourists, and worse, a paradise for paedophiles.
2Bangkok.com, a locally run website, monitored the “bad news about Bangkok”and plucked and posted quotes from the worst of it. USA Today ran a story all about the “seamy side” of Thai tourism, Time held a quote from someone saying that “the way Wall Street is to finance – Bangkok is to paedophiles,” and an Associated Press story, now inescapable on Google searches, is headlined with mention of “lax laws.”
It did not help matters that Karr was a teacher here, nor that he had been previously hired by two elite Thai schools, nor that when he had been fired from one, it had been, for of all things, being too strict.
Little mercy was given for the fact that before Karr was arrested as a teacher and paedophile in Bangkok, he was a teacher and paedophile in America, Honduras, Korea and a handful of Western European countries.
That Karr was found here, in a city with a sex tourist reputation that often precedes itself, was enough to inspire reports that were unfair or uninformed in their dismissal of the past decade of progress the Thai government and a handful of NGOs have made in addressing the country’s child sex tourism and prostitution problems.
These efforts have been aggressive and extensive, and while accurate statistics are impossible to gather, experts believe the number of children being sexually exploited and the number of sex tourists exploiting them has fallen.
INITIATIVES AND COMMITMENT
“There is a definite commitment,” says Anthony Burnett, Information Officer with the Bangkok-based international NGO ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes).
“The situation has improved over the past 10 years because the government of Thailand initiated policies and legislation; introduced and made punishment for people who exploit children more severe, and strengthened protections for the rights of victims. At the same time…Thailand has moved the age for completion of secondary education to 15 years old, introduced education loans for students and vocational training for poor families, and is arresting and punishing tourists who offend.”
He says the government is also working to set up a trafficking database and is engaged in an anti-trafficking programme with other countries in the Mekong Sub-region.
Among a long list of other initiatives are efforts to better train law enforcement personnel in handling child sex crimes, to improve information sharing with foreign law enforcement agencies, and to rebrand Thailand as an up-scale and family-friendly tourist destination.
The Ministry of Tourism is also working with ECPAT to develop an Anti-Trafficking Roadmap that will work to stop trafficking and prostitution as they relate to tourism.
Meanwhile, much of the world has woken up to the issue of child sex offences committed abroad, and in recent years a number of countries, including the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK, have developed laws to prosecute citizens that commit such crimes abroad.
To help implement and enforce these laws, foreign governments have begun placing agents overseas and in problem countries. Australia has around a dozen such agents placed in various locales in Thailand, the US has an active contingent working on Operation Predator within its Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, and a large number of other embassies have at least one officer assigned to child sex crime issues, says Luc Ferran, ECPAT’s Programme Officer for Combatting Trafficking and Child Sex Tourism.
The US has convicted nearly 20 people (a handful for crimes in Thailand) under the 2003 PROTECT law, while Australia has prosecuted four under its version.
These laws have also become the basis of a deterrence campaign by NGOs like ECPAT and World Vision that have created in-flight advertisements and billboards declaring “Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours.”
Even with all that has been done, Ferran says, “there is still a long way to go” to ending child sex tourism in Thailand.
And as evidenced by the spate of recent paedophile arrests, and in spite of in-flight advertisements, travel brochures, and cautionary posters hanging in hotels, foreign child sex offenders are still coming.
INFORMATION EXCHANGE NEEDED
It is relatively easy for paedophiles to travel to and through Asia undetected, living tourist visa to tourist visa and finding cheap sex to be had with children. It is also relatively easy, as further evidenced by the spate of recent arrests, for such offenders to come to Asia, find teaching jobs (with or without easily obtaining fake passports, teaching certificates and diplomas) and position themselves in a classroom with 50 children.
“There is a need for countries to exchange information regarding known child sex offenders,” says Burnett. He mentions that currently no such information is available, making it impossible for authorities to know when an offender travels into their country. Few countries restrict the departure of offenders to another country, he adds.
This makes the region an attractive one to offenders, who in the West are publicly registered, closely tracked, and often ostracised.
While Southeast Asia promises relative anonymity for previous offenders, it also provides comradeship through the huge community of other sex tourists and sex offenders.
Plus, Thailand is warmer, cheaper and half a world away.
But the draws for Thai sex tourism are hardly new – the lid having been lifted off this Pandora’s Box long ago, when the commercial sex trade was ushered in with American soldiers taking “R and R” in Pattaya.
It was not long after that Thailand’s sex tourism turned into the big, sordid, and lucrative business that it is, involving knowingly and unknowingly – and in addition to brothels, bars, massage parlours and sex workers – hotels, restaurants, taxi services, and tourism companies.
It seems natural, particularly in a lesser-developed country like Thailand, that a commercial sex tourism industry would eventually beget a child sex tourism industry. Children or parents, seeing prostitution as a means of survival enlist themselves or their children.
Meanwhile, sex tourists making use of these trades are, in the nature of tourists, more likely to explore and less likely to discriminate in their sexual encounters. Burnett says child sex tourists are often not regular child sex offenders, but “situational abusers.” In other words, these individuals are put in a place where they can, and so they will.
While Ferran says the correlation of the two vary country to country (Cambodia and Sri Lanka, he points out, have had strong child sex markets, while comparatively small adult ones), the existence of a commercial sex industry certainly has some implications on the existence of a child sex tourism industry.
Because of the aggressive efforts in the last decade to crack down on the problem, child sex tourism is not nearly the problem in Thailand that it once was. While it is still happens in places like Bangkok, Chiang Rai, the Patong district of Phuket, and most visibly in Pattaya, child sex tourists are more likely to go to Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, or Indonesia, where law enforcement is less strong.
But while child sex tourists may be engaging in activity elsewhere, Ferran says they often use Bangkok as their hub. “There are always a lot of them arriving,” he says. Thus, there is always a steady stream of child sex tourists coming, going, and circulating through the capital city.
Children exploited in Thailand’s commercial sex trade are often trafficking victims from Thailand’s impoverished North (sold wittingly or unwittingly into prostitution) or from surrounding countries of Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and regions in China. Children in tribal and refugee communities are at special risk of becoming trafficking victims and child prostitutes because of their lack of citizenship rights, and the relative ease in which they can be exploited.
Other children, like those that Graham Tardif of the NGO, World Vision, works to rehabilitate, are street children that independently elect to work as prostitutes. These children will often mask their sex work by selling other items on the street, but will engage in activities when approached, he says.
Child sex tourists most often come from Western European countries and Australia, though there are an increasing number coming from Russia and East Asian countries, Burnett says.
Among the Asian tourists are “virgin seekers,” or men, usually from China and Taiwan, that are less interested in having sex with children than they are in having unprotected sex with girls that they can be certain are STD-free. The practise is particularly common in Cambodia, though Ferran says it is also happening in Thailand’s northern provinces and along the Cambodian border.
This experience almost invariably marks a girl’s initiation into the sex trade, and while Ferran notes that the virgins are sometimes over 18, this is exceptional and in general the demand for virgins is leading to younger and younger prostitutes.
Even so, “In Thailand it is more difficult than before if you are looking for 12 or 13-year-olds,” Ferran says. “Especially if you are coming in as a tourist without speaking the language, and not knowing the areas, it’s not a given that you’ll find places where a child is made available for sexual exploitation.”
Tardif echoes this, saying that because of past years’ brothel raids and the strengthening of Thai law enforcement, most of Thailand’s child prostitution has been forced underground.
Instead, Ferran explains child sex crimes are more likely committed by resident foreign paedophiles, like Karr, that move here and are often employed in education or childcare.
More often than that, child sex crimes are committed by natural citizens. Burnett notes that it is a minority of the country’s child sex crimes that are committed by foreigners.
Not that this, or the many measures Thailand has taken to rid itself of child sex tourists and child prostitution, is making its reputation as a child sex destination any easier to shake.
The coverage of the Karr case has left Thailand, however unfairly, in its aftermath, looking pretty ugly to much of the world.
What is doubly disappointing is this publicity (aside from that it was brought on by an American paedophile that Thailand never asked for) is that it perpetuates an image that Thailand has spent much of the last 10 years trying to undo.
While the government and NGOs will keep pressing on with those efforts, they will be getting help from the tourism industry as well. Encouraged by “The Code,” an initiative developed by ECPAT and UNICEF to promote a socially responsible tourism industry, a number of hotels and tourism companies have begun to train employees and adopt policies to become child-safe organisations. Ferran says there have been 230 signatories of “The Code” thus far, and that he expects that such policy will become a standard incorporation into hotel ratings in a couple of years.
Ferran adds that he senses a shift in the way the tourism industry handles such issues, and its nature as a whole.
“The customer is not always right anymore,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.”