Cambodian Cop Targets Sex Tourists

Cambodia is stepping up efforts to stop sex tourists who exploit children. Kao Thea of Phnom Penh's anti-trafficking and juvenile protection unit represents the police officers who are leading the fight.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And now, a bit of good news from a country where good news is scarce, a country where anything goes and anything, including children, can be had for a price.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has the story of a cop who cares, especially about kids.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Many foreign tourists come to Cambodia for its history, the ancient temples of Angkor Wat or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. But a fair number come for something else to.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, losing you. Oh, the do cue. Oh, the do cue. I love you. Do the cue(ph).

SULLIVAN: Cambodia is also a popular destination for foreigners seeking cheap and easy sex, readily available in bars like this one in the capital, Phnom Penh.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I like the way you're holding (unintelligible). Do the cue.

SULLIVAN: Cambodia's reputation as a destination for sex tourism is well deserved and not likely to change anytime soon. What is changing is the country's image as a place where foreign pedophiles can find easy prey. Captain Kao Thea is deputy chief of Phnom Penh's Anti-Trafficking And Juvenile Protection Unit.

Captain KAO THEA (Deputy Chief, Anti-trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit, Phnom Penh): (Through translator) My message to foreign pedophiles is this: if you come to Cambodia, looking for sex with children, we will catch you and you will go to jail.

SULLIVAN: It's more than just a warning. Since February of last year, nearly a dozen alleged foreign pedophiles have been arrested in the capital. Even more remarkable in a country where the courts and cops are widely seen as hopelessly corrupt, many of those arrests have led to convictions.

Mr. RON DUNN(ph) (Lead Investigator, International Justice Mission, Cambodia): I get a little bit frustrated and angry sometimes, when people tell me that the Cambodian National Police force are all corrupt and they're all inept. Well, that is not the case at all.

SULLIVAN: Ron Dunn is lead investigator in Cambodia for the International Justice Mission, which fights human trafficking and sexual exploitation around the world.

Mr. DUNN: There are some very good professional police officers out there who are trying to make a difference. And Kao Thea is an example of that. And he is very proactive in bringing to justice perpetrators who are committing sexual offenses against children here in Cambodia.

SULLIVAN: Kao Thea and his colleagues have been aided in that effort by newfound political in high places in the Cambodian government, political will prompted in part by pressure from foreign donors and governments, unhappy with Cambodia's poor record in combating child sex trafficking.

That record is improving, though Kao Thea says the courts can still be a problem.

Capt. THEA: (Through translator) Sometimes, a suspect gets released, and the reason for that release is not clear. And that makes me angry, because of all the effort that has gone into apprehending the suspect. It makes me angry, but it doesn't make me want to give up. It only makes me work harder.

SULLIVAN: The IJM's Ron Dunn thinks Captain Kao Thea is motivated, in part, by having children of his own - two daughters: one, six; the other, 11.

Mr. DUNN: I think it's a very important factor, and I've got children of my own. It's very heartbreaking when you walk in the brothels and see 8-, 9-, 10-, 12-year-old kids for sale, for sex. It really gets you. You have to think, let's just grab these kids and get out of here, and if anybody tries to stop us, look out. I think Kao Thea is very motivated in that respect.

SULLIVAN: A stocky man with a wrestler's built and a grip to match, Kao Thea says he made some enemies in the capital as a result of the crackdown, not just pedophiles but also some Cambodians who may have profited from exploiting children in the past.

Capt. THEA: (Through translator) I don't really care if people are angry with me because all we are doing is enforcing the law, and we are doing something good here. So if those people want to come after me, let them.

SULLIVAN: A network of informants - some paid, some not - help the police in their effort. Motorcycle taxi drivers, desk clerks, and street vendors who tell the cops when the see a foreigner engaging in suspicious behavior with a child. NGOs like the IJM have similar networks and help train the police in how to build and present a case. Kao Thea also works closely with U.S. law enforcement officials, who also say he's the real deal.

He has made several trips to the U.S. in the past year to testify against some of the pedophiles he's helped put behind bars. And the combined efforts of the Cambodian police, foreign law enforcement and groups like the IJM are paying off.

Mr. DUNN: The intelligence that is coming to us is that two years ago, Cambodia was the number one destination for pedophiles, internationally. That is not the case anymore.

SULLIVAN: The IJM's Ron Dunn says pedophiles are still coming, but they have to be more careful and clever than in the past.

Mr. DUNN: They know the police are getting better trained. They know they're focusing on foreign pedophiles, so they're now moving to other places: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia. And the reasons they go into places like that is because there's no effective law enforcement or judiciaries in place in those countries.

SULLIVAN: Investigator Dunn says Cambodia still has a long way to go, but says there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year, he says, the IJM was involved in 25 cases involving alleged traffickers and pedophiles. Twenty-four of those cases, he says, resulted in convictions - three of them, foreigners, two of them, Americans. Captain Kao Thea.

Capt. THEA: (Through translator) Foreign pedophiles used to think that Cambodia was a forest that they could hide in and be safe. But that time is over. Tourists who come to see Angkor Wat and our culture are welcome. Those who come looking to have sex with children are not. And we will cut down the forest, if we have to, to find them.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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