C HILD welfare groups in Cambodia have a blunt message for foreigners who come here looking for child sex - think again.
The Cambodian branch of End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) has confirmed that investigations are underway into suspected pedophiles in the country.
The group stressed that both Khmers and foreigners were involved, but said people coming to Cambodia for this reason were particularly exploitative.
"They make a mistake if they think Cambodia is weak enough and poor enough to be used this way without any response from the government and local groups," an ECPAT spokesman said.
"Children in a country such as this, which is trying to reconstruct itself, are of the highest importance and a lot of people concerned will ensure they will do their best to protect the future of Cambodia."
The spokesman, who did not want to named for fear of jeopardizing welfare programs, said complaints had been made against a number of people "who will soon be questioned by police".
ECPAT, which has ties with all major NGOs involved in child welfare in Cambodia, is the first group in Cambodia to publicly say it is investigating suspected pedophiles.
ECPAT workers have been involved with two recent prosecutions for child sex offenses in Phnom Penh.
Austrian man Josef Schlik was convicted on June 2 of committing sexual acts with two boys. He received a one-year suspended sentence - criticized by some NGO workers as being too lenient.
British doctor Gavin Scott is under court investigation for similar offenses.
The ECPAT spokesman said it was likely other people would be prosecuted in the near future.
He said the aim was not to "persecute" anybody but to ensure there were proper procedures to act on information from children.
On June 27, ECPAT issued a statement saying that complaints to the police had only been lodged following "in-depth investigations and have never been aimed at pre-determined people".
The statement emphasized that sexual abuse of minors, both boys and girls, was committed by foreigners (Western and Asian) and Khmers.
It said that ECPAT had "no political aspect" and its aim was to encourage enforcement of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by Cambodia in 1992.
The ECPAT spokesman confirmed that NGOs had at least once, in the case of Gavin Scott, provided information to senior Cambodian government ministers.
He disputed that this was designed to get political pressure put on the police or courts in such prosecutions.
"It's not up to us to put pressure on them, but for them to realize what they have to do on this issue.
"In order for them to take proper action, not necessarily over Scott but towards the implementation of the convention to protect children, there is a lot to be done. They are not necessarily informed of everything."
Asked whether prosecuting foreigners was politically-sensitive, he said: "There is one law in Cambodia, not two laws. Foreigners and Khmers are the same under the law."
Confirming that NGOs wanted a special police unit set up to investigate crimes against children, he indicated unhappiness at how the police treated child complainants.
"They probably need some police trained in order to realize that children cannot be interviewed as adults, because children are not adults.
"We cannot blame the police... because most of them have never been trained in this."
Meanwhile, National Assembly Vice-Chairman Son Soubert told the Post that a key problem was lack of knowledge or concern about pedophilia among many Khmers.
He put much of the blame on parents who did not know what their children did, or did not care how they earned money.
"I think the general attitude is that people don't care what happens. When you are poor, you tend to be selfish, you think about money.
"They are not aware that this kind of mentality may be very detrimental to our social structure.
"If our young ones became prostitutes like this, how can you expect this country to be free, independent and strong. They will sell themselves to anyone."
Soubert, who also runs a provincial children's center, said he had asked his Parliamentary advisers to consider drafting a new child protection law.