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Australian Sex Tourists

It's Saturday evening in Negombo, a quiet fishing inlet on the west coast of Sri Lanka, and villagers are gathering in the churchyard to observe mass. A breeze blows from the ocean, cooling worshippers and casual onlookers leaning over the fence. Prayers are punctuated by hymns from a choir of boys, dressed in white, with dark faces and big bright eyes.
Nearby an elderly tourist talks to a wiry youth called Namal*. They discuss the choirboys with the keen interest of punters at a racetrack. When mass finished Namal runs to fetch one of the boys. In the seaside resort towns of Sri Lanka, paedophiles fish for children whom live in squalid settlements along the beach. "I've been selling sex to tourists since I was 13 years old," says Namal, now 20. "I don't enjoy it but I have to bring money home to my mother."
In Sri Lanka still Asia's center for "professional" boy sex workers, adolescence is often the end of the game. For former prostitutes, almost the only available sources on income are the drug peddling and pimping, sometimes for their own family members.
In Asia more than a million children feed a $5 billion sex industry, according to the International Labour Organisation. In some countries, children comprise nearly a third of the sex-worker population. And as Western nations continue to tighten their domestic paedophile laws and Asia's economy falters, the number of men travelling overseas in search of cheap child sex is growing every year according to the international organisation End Child Prostitution Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT). Between 1989 and 1996, 12 per cent of the foreigners arrested in Asia for child sexual abuse were Australian - by far the largest number in proportion to population.
A secret paedophile database, set up by the Australian Federal Police in 1994, now carries the names of more than 1400 suspected and active offenders. The National Crime Authority estimates up to 5000 Australian paedophiles are responsible for molesting 40 000 children each year.
For Australian sex tourists, Thailand and the Philippines have always been the hunting grounds of choice, especially for those who prefer young girls. More recently, Cambodia has become the hottest destination, along with Vietnam and China. Although numbers are unknown, international police officers in Thailand believe that, each year, several thousand Australian tourists have sex with children in Vietnam and Cambodia alone.
Only a small percentage of these are confirmed paedophiles: men with a long term psychological predilection for sex with children. The vast majority are situational child abusers", men on holiday who "experiment" with children - an act they would never consider in their own country.
Steve* and his Melbourne mates like to visit Asia at least once a year. The 51-year-old tradesman, who recently separated from his wife of 20 years, has two sons and works hard - except for the few weeks each year when he goes on holiday "to get pissed and get laid". Steve and his friends are typical situational abusers. Eight years ago they frequented sleazy Thai bars in search of adult prostitutes. Not long after, due to the ready availability of young girls, teamed with alcohol and macho bravado, their preference shifted towards pubescent children.
"The older girls have all got boyfriends and children - who wants that?" asks Steve. "They get too smart. All they want is money and they know how to get it out of you. Young ones, no problem. They're soft, they'll do anything and they don't' complain. I like the ones with no hair. They're like babies, little dolls."
Sitting in a Bankok go-go bar, Steve and his friend Sam*, a 45-year-old divorcee speak freely about their recent trip to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. "Its great. You can get anything you want," says Steve, as he surveys a catwalk of nude girls. "Before, Thailand was no problem, but I'd be damned if I'd take even a 15-year-old girl now. There are cops all over the place. If you like young meat, you've got to go to Cambodia."
In Phnom Penh, Steve visited the district of Svay Pak, known by sex tourists as "The Street of Little Flowers". Just 11km outside the capital, Svay Pak is a warren of cement houses holding perhaps one third of the city's 15 000 prostitutes. The nation's growing rural poverty, decades of civil war, and a paralysed police force have thrust 5000 children into prostitution, most sold by their parents or relatives.
"There must have been about 20 girls in this one brothel," says Steve. "Most were about nine years old. I don't go for that - you've got to be some kind of pervert, " he scoffs. "But I took this one girl; she must have been 13. She was nice."
Unlike situational abusers, true paedophiles are more organised. Until recently, "paedo-networks" in Australia were relatively accessible. Only a few years ago, child sex abusers could inquire about an obliquely worded notice for a "cultural slide show" in a Sydney newspaper and, if they answered certain questions correctly, be invited to an evening of travel advice for paedophiles. Today, due to the pressure of and angry population and a responsive police force, such obvious gatherings have stopped.
However, while child sex offenders no longer sign up with special "tour groups" in their own countries, most join underground "paedo-clubs" and swap information over the internet or via email.
Joining a paedo-club is extremely difficult. Men must provide a dossier of proof, such as photos, contacts and a resume of sexual abuse. Once accepted, paedophiles can access pictures of naked children, and a database of safe hotels and pimps in various countries from Sri Lanka to Costa Rica.
Other well-hidden sites detailing exactly where to go and who to contact are passed from one paedophile to the next. When police arrested Martin Hersh, the first American to be prosecuted for child sex abuse overseas, they confiscated his computer: it contained information and maps of places such as Kathmandu, with notation like "young boys play here".
"The internet is where all the promotion and information exchange is shifting to," says Bernadette McMenamin, national director of ECPAT Australia. "There are also guidebooks such as Asia File: Your Passport To Pleasure In The Far East, but this stuff is very underground in the West. In Asia, I have found in-country guidebooks to young boys, as well as boy films, openly sold on sidewalk stands near Patpong [Bankok's red light district]."
There is no uniform profile of child sex offender. Psychiatric evidence suggests a high proportion of paedophiles were themselves abused during childhood, and many profess a genuine concern and affection for children. Records of paedophiles arrested in Asia over the past decade now indicate that nearly 75 percent are over the age of 40. Most are well-dressed, older middle-class men, inconspicuous except when they are combing the beaches for their prey.
According to McMenamin, most paedophiles don't travel in large group:they operate alone or in pairs. Many visit well-known paedophile haunts, such as Pattaya, a resort town in southern Thailand, or the Sri Lankan seaside village of Negombo. There it's easy to make friends and contacts within the paedophile community. But increasingly, men have to "show and tell" before they're accepted by other resident abusers, says McMenamin.
"The Snow Cave" in Negombo is a pretty, mid-range hotel, complete with quaint guest rooms and a cosy restaurant and bar. The courtyard boasts a garden full of bouganvillea, ferns, lianas and tropical plants with tables and lounge chairs scattered around for travellers to relax.
Most of its guests are single, older men. Curing the day the place is empty. The men are down on the sand sunning themselves or strolling along the beach. In the afternoon they laze in the courtyard, reading and playing backgammon. About half have Sri Lankan male adult companions and others are alone.
"Generally these [the men sitting solo] are the ones who like young boys," says Jaya*, a Sri Lankan anti-paedophile informant, who has spent years investigating child sex abuse in the region. "The pimps hang outside this hotel and others at night. The get their orders from hotel staff and fetch young boys for the tourists. Often the boys are taken through the back door to the appropriate bedroom for the evening. It's very discreet and many of the other guests wouldn't know what's going on."
Near the Snow Cave is a large, modern home rented by an American artist called Frank*. In his 50's, Franks's been in and out of Sri Lanka for years. His five-bedroom house is packed with mod cons - large comfy sofas, TV, stereo. One room has a guest called Thomas*, who's been there a couple of weeks. He's a retired 60-year-old Englishman and didn't know Frank before coming to Sri Lanka: a mutual friend connected them. "Frank told us he wanted boys for Tomas each evening. "Says Sarath*, a local pimp. "We brought him about 12 boys, one as young as nine."
According to Sarath, about five men orer boys at Frank's house almost every evening. They eat, talk, fondle the boys and watch TV. "Usually," says Sarath, "they watch action movies, which the boys like. Sometimes they watch porno movies. The two unoccupied rooms are used for sex. The men fondle the boys and may undress them in the presence of others, but sex is usually done in private. Some of the men want to make home videos, but Franik has protested. After Baumann's arrest, he's a little paranoid."
Businessman Victor Baumann, who lived in Negombo for 15 years, employed many villagers and made large donations to local schools and social organisations. In 1996, the wealthy town patron was arrested for child sexual abuse and procuring boys for Western visitors at his palatial beachfront home. After a controversial deportation from Sri Lanka, Baumann was sentenced to prison for two and a half years.
For hard-core paedophiles, the good old days are slowly coming to and end and some child sex tourists are spending their holidays in jail. Earlier this year, Australian Bradely Pendragon was sentenced to 18 years' jail in Thailand, and last October, a Briton, Albert "Sunny" Wilson, was given the death sentence in the Philippines after raping a 12-year-old girl.
The Australian Federal Police currently have a list of more than 330 high-risk paedophiles. "Every time one goes overseas an alarm goes off and information is passed ton to the country of destination," says McMenamin. "It's then up to that country to track them. Australia is working with overseas authorities, but some countries are better equipped than others to trace offenders sufficiently."
The foundation of the offensive against child sex tourism lies in extraterritorial legislation. Twenty-four countries, including Australia have adopted laws whereby offenders are punished in their own countries for child sex crimes committed overseas. Australia has among the toughest laws of any Western nation. The 1994 Crimes [Child Sex Tourism] Amendment Bill makes child sexual abuse overseas a criminal offence in Australia - with a punishment of up to 17 years in prison and a $500 000 fine. However, extraterritorial laws cannot extradite sex abusers from foreign countries: they can only be arrested when they return home voluntarily.
So far, nine men have been prosecuted under the Child Sex Tourism law, giving Australia the second highest number of prosecutions after Germany. Of these nine, four have been sentence, three have had their charges dismissed and two are awaiting trial. Of those convicted, one was "discovered" to be a child sex tourist when police raided his home for crimes committed in Australia and found pornographic material from overseas; other convicted were dobbed in to authorities by acquaintances.
But most paedophiles continue to abuse with impunity, despite the introduction of tougher legislation in both Asia and the West over the past few years. "While [nine prosecutions] is a step in the right direction it's just not enough when you consider the thousands of men to commit crimes every year," McMenamin says. "No matter how strong the laws, without arrests and prosecutions, little can be done to curb the growing number of offenders."
Only five Australians have been arrested and prosecuted in South-East Asia and the Pacific; of these two have been convicted and one awaits trial. The other two had their charges dropped. And despite Sri Lanka's strong new laws, only four foreigners have been convicted in years of work by non-government organisations and prosecutors.
"Now we have the law but not the resources to prosecute offenders," Says Sri Lankan lawyer Arun Tampoe. "its like having a Roll's Royce but no petrol. The problem is that abusers have little to fear from the police in the street. In many cases a few hundred dollars bribe buys them freedom." In places like Negombo, child abuse is big business. Often police who are noble and don't go along with the corruption are just shifted to another location.
Even if the abuser gets charged in a developing country, he will most likely walk free. Wealthy paedophiles such as convicted offender Vitor Baumann, have repeatedly bought off witnesses, police, judges and immigration officials.
If that doesn't work, the abuser can always jump bail, which is seldom more than an Australian's average monthly wage. More often than not, abusers hop on the next plane out once bail is granted. Now, activists in countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka are pressuring for no-bail laws for foreign sex offenders.
"We pressure the judge not to grant bail; this is very important," says Sudarat Sereewat, the secretary general of the Coalition to Fight Against Child Exploitation (FACE), based in Thailand. These days, foreign paedophiles unfortunate enough to bet charged in Thailand must face FACE. Working directly with the Thailand attorney general's office, FACE lawyers clamp on to paedophiles like pit bulls protesting bail, helping children produce admissible evidence, and pushing the case through.
Sereewat, a heroine to thousands of Thais, believes the Asian court process compounds the abuse of molested children by forcing them to describe their sexual torture in detail, in public.
"Too often, the court proceedings just victimise the child again," says Sereewat. The establishment of child-friendly courts is a growing concern in South-East Asia and Sri Lanka. Australian police are teaching local officers in Thailand and the Philippines how to investigate child-abuse cases. And efforts are currently under way to streamline court procedures, allow children to testify on videotape or closed-circuit TV, and provide protection and support for the victims.
Joining Sereewat in the fight against child abuse is Maureen Seneviratne, chair of anti-paedophile organisation PEACE, based in Sri Lanka. Peering over a desk piled with papers and clippings, she is a short woman with the tough demeanour of a life-long investigative journalist.
Since 1991, PEACE has led the fight to protect Sri Lanka's children from foreign predators. "Some 200 to 300 foreign paedophiles are established in this country working as promoters for sex tourism and child porn," says Seneviratne. "Sri Lanka is different from Thailand. Here, paedophilia is institutionalised. Ninety percent of the children come from beach-squatter families, families broken by poverty with little concern to protect their children. But we're working to change that."
PEACE conducts programs for fishing families living near the tourist resorts, educating women and their tough fisherman husbands to keep their children in school and to look out for sexual exploitation in their community.
"These sentinels watch men distribute gifts and make sexual advances to children," says Sunil Gamboge, a PEACE organiser. "They call us, and we inform the police or check it out ourselves."
"Foreigners give gifts to our children and get their satisfaction by using them says Indreni, a Sri Lankan mother of four who has attended many PEACE programs. "One German man asked me for my son but I refused. He'd shown him a radio. I've told my son that foreigners will take you for sex, and don't go."
Last year, PEACE's activities bore fruit when the notorious "Beach Baba", a fraudulent priest who'd sold children to tourists for years, made the mistake of attempting to peddle the son of a PEACE informer. Thanks to Maureen Seneviratne and her team of volunteers, Baba is in prison.

* names have been changed.

Marie Clare Magazine (May 1999)


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