British sex tourists turn killing fields of Cambodia into paedophiles' playground

Svay Pak does not figure in any guidebook, but by late afternoon the squalid shanty town on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, is thronged with Western men. The tourists lounge on plastic chairs in the shade, drinking Angkor beer and surveying the scenery: young girls, barely 11 or 12, wearing low-cut tops and come-hither smiles.

The air is full of American drawls, Australian twangs – and the unmistakable sound of a Geordie accent. British sex tourists are flocking to Cambodia, helping to put the South-east Asian nation on the map as the new haunt of globe-trotting paedophiles. Gary Glitter, the former pop star and convicted child pornographer, recently reappeared in Phnom Penh after being hounded out of the country last year.

Lord Puttnam, the British film producer who evoked the horrors of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in his 1984 film The Killing Fields, plans to highlight the problem of child exploitation when he returns to Cambodia this week in his new role as president of Unicef UK. He will find a nation in which civil war has given way to a poverty so grinding that many families sell their daughters into the sex trade.

In Svay Pak, business is conducted quite brazenly. Twenty brothels, each sealed by a padlocked iron grille, line the potholed dirt track that is the shanty town's main street. Step inside any of the brick shopfronts and the papasan – pimp – will produce a girl or boy to suit any whim. Oral sex costs $5 (£3.20); $500 buys a six-year-old for a week.

The older girls chat up the punters, who congregate in makeshift cafes across the street. As the men tuck into fish and chips off old Formica tables, the girls flutter around them, giggling and whispering in their ears. A waif in a loose outfit with a cartoon motif clambers on to the lap of an empty-eyed Japanese tourist.

A moped draws up and two Englishmen alight. One sports a greasy ponytail and floral shirt; the other has a sunburnt neck. Ponytail is planning to visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia's ancient temple complex. Sunburnt Neck snorts with derision. "That's just a load of old stones," he says. "This is the place to be." After draining their Cokes, the pair disappear inside a dimly lit doorway. A few minutes later, a police officer saunters up and is given an envelope by the Vietnamese pimp. The bribe changes hands in broad daylight. The policeman swaggers off.

Corruption is rampant in Cambodia; the sex trade is controlled by senior police and military officers and successful prosecutions are rare. Evidence is mysteriously lost; brothels are tipped off before raids; pimps slip their handcuffs on the way to court.

Tourists are occasionally arrested; a 69-year-old Staffordshire man, Derek Baston, was picked up with a girl aged 12 last July. He has not yet been charged. But according to Afesip, a French charity that rescues child prostitutes, most foreigners buy their way out of trouble. "It's anarchy," said Pierre Legros, Afesip's director. "If the police did their job properly, they could arrest 50 paedophiles a day."

The onus is on Western countries to prosecute perpetrators, but only one Briton – Mark Towner, 53, from Kent – has been convicted of sex offences abroad since legislation was passed in 1997. "It's pathetic," says Bernadette McMenamin of Ecpat, an international network that campaigns against child prostitution.

The tourism ministry estimates that one-quarter of Cambodia's annual 400,000 visitors – who include 18,000 Britons – are sex tourists. The girls are getting younger all the time, a trend fuelled by the demand for virgins. "The foreigners like their girls very young, very small," said a tour guide, Om Cham Roeun. "I know one Englishman who has been here four times this year."

Most girls are trafficked from rural villages or neighbouring Vietnam, many lured by false promises of jobs. They become virtual sex slaves: locked up, beaten and forced to service up to 10 men a day, often without condoms. More than half are HIV-positive.

Afesip rescued an eight-year-old girl who was sold by her mother after being raped by her stepfather and nine other men. The girl was given electric shocks when she refused to have sex with clients. When she became sleepy, the pimp thrust chillies in her eyes.

There is no political will to crack down on child prostitution; in fact, Mr Legros claims one cabinet minister is involved in the trade. "If I give you the name, I'm dead," he says. It is no empty boast. He and his wife have received numerous death threats.

Ms McMenamin says Cambodia's sex tourists are seasoned travellers looking for new frontiers. "They see children as a commodity," she said. "To them, they're fresh meat." Or as Lord Puttnam put it before embarking on his new role: "Children all over the world are being denied a very basic right: the right to childhood."

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