BANGKOK, Thailand – In an Internet exchange intercepted by Cambodian police, two teachers – apparently foreigners – discuss how easy it is to pick up mostly homeless boys between 10 and 14 years old and bring them to their apartments for sex.
“I am having a wonderful time with them sexually. Some of them are very interesting. There is never a dull moment,” one of the teachers wrote, according to a transcript published in 2004 by Beyond Borders, a Canadian organization combatting sexual abuse of children. “Last night, four boys spent the night and I like all four of them.”
A high-profile manhunt in Thailand this week for a suspected pedophile highlights how Southeast Asia has become a magnet for pedophiles. Some commit their crimes with relative impunity, walking hand-in-hand with underage girls in Bangkok or with boys in a resort hotel on the Indonesian island of Bali. Some work as English teachers, giving them access to students.
Across the region, hundreds of thousands of children are believed to work in the sex trade, mostly in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.
“Everything here makes the crime easy,” said Rosalind Prober, president of Beyond Borders, who is visiting Bangkok.
“This can be an open crime in Thailand when Western men are obviously in front of people carrying on in this way,” she said. “It becomes normalized so they don’t think they are doing anything wrong.”
The target of the manhunt is Christopher Paul Neil, a 32-year-old Canadian teacher who suddenly left South Korea on a one-way ticket for Thailand last week as investigators closed in on his identity. He was photographed as part of standard immigration procedures when he arrived at Bangkok’s international airport. He remains at large, presumably somewhere in Thailand.
The immigration photo, released by Interpol, shows a man with a cleanly shaved head and eyeglasses dressed in a white button-down shirt. Authorities believe it is the same man whose digitally blurred image appeared in about 200 Internet photos that showed him sexually abusing Vietnamese and Cambodian boys as young as 6.
On Thursday, Thai police said they would issue an arrest warrant for Neil after two boys came forward to say that Neil had paid them to perform oral sex on them in 2003, when they were 13 and 14. Neil taught at a Christian school in the outskirts of Bangkok from August 2003 to January 2004.
Some pedophiles use secretive rings in cyberspace to find their victims. The networks offer tips on the best places to meet children or arrange sexual rendezvous in luxury condos or on private yachts.
To get access to such networks and earn credibility among their fellow pedophiles, individuals often must provide evidence of sex acts they have committed with children – as Neil appears to have done by putting the sexually explicit photos of himself with young boys on the Internet.
Others turn to jobs like teaching or tutoring that gives them ready access to youngsters. Teaching English is especially popular because jobs are easy to get and the position carries with it a level of authority that makes it difficult for the children and even their parents to question abuses.
“The children are sitting ducks. This is their teacher. This is someone you trust and tells you what to do,” Prober said. “You very quickly get trapped. There is such a level of control and power by a teacher. It’s multiplied when it comes to a foreign teacher.”
Poverty contributes to the problem. Many of the victims are the poorest children, including beggars, street children and the homeless.
“It’s all a manifestation of poverty that creates the vulnerabilities,” said Richard Bridle, UNICEF’s deputy regional director for East Asia and the Pacific.
Pedophiles also take advantage of Asian legal systems where cash bribes can lead to charges being dropped or victim’s relatives and other witnesses suddenly changing their stories.
Asian governments have begun to address the problem, enacting tough laws and moving to convict pedophiles in Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. Thailand, for example, has toughened its screening process for teachers since the high profile case of John Mark Karr last year.
Karr, who had worked as an English teacher in Bangkok and South Korea, made headlines when he claimed to have killed 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, a long unsolved murder in the United States. He was arrested in Bangkok and flown back to the United States, only to be freed when DNA tests failed to place him at the crime scene.
“It is very good now that we have the police help us screen teachers to make sure there is no previous (criminal) record,” said Poramit Srikureja, an assistant chairman of the Christian school in Bangkok where Neil taught. “It is a lot more difficult now to get teachers.”
The Neil case, experts said, shows that law enforcement agencies are better coordinating their activities and giving priority to pedophilia cases.
“We are beginning to see a trend going toward better laws, better policing and more awareness within the public that this isn’t acceptable,” Bridle said. “I see this particular case as a great cause of optimism and great cause for redoubling efforts to both catch these people committing these crimes but also looking at vulnerabilities that underlie why children become victims.”