A perfect lure for paedophiles
The massive size of its sex industry makes Thailand a prime target for those looking to exploit children
Thais cringed in embarrassment while watching US press reports on the arrest in Bangkok last week of an American suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. One undesirable effect of the media frenzy surrounding the arrest of John Mark Karr, who was previously arrested for possession of child pornography, was the poor publicity it generated for Thailand, which was variously described as the "sex capital of the world" and a "paedophile's paradise".
It matters little whether such negative attributions - which come in handy for foreign journalists trawling for a quick bit of background information or a convenient tagline to help their audiences make sense of what Thailand stands for - are based on inaccurate or outdated information. Virtually all news reports proclaimed it was obvious why paedophiles converged on Thailand.
That may be unfair. However, there is no denying that Thailand has a huge commercial sex industry, and a sizeable number of prostitutes are minors.
But anti-human-trafficking experts say the situation in Thailand in regard to child prostitution has improved dramatically from the 1990s. The availability of children under 18 for commercial sex has been sharply reduced, thanks to intensified crackdowns over the years. Far fewer children are in the country's sex trade, because the economy has improved, and fewer poor families need to take their children out of school to help make ends meet.
Of course, the stigma of having made commercial sex an entire industry lingers in Thailand. And admittedly, the Kingdom remains a long way from shedding its problem image in this regard, despite its outstanding achievements in economic and social development that have raised most of its citizens out of abject poverty and made it the dynamic middle-income developing country it is today.
Crackdowns on paedophiles - foreigners and locals alike - attempting to buy sex from underage children have been ratcheted up, as Thai authorities now take a serious commitment to the nation's youth. Efforts have also been strong in eliminating the trafficking of people from other countries for sex or other forms of heinous exploitation. Thanks to cooperation with foreign governments, hardly a week goes by without foreign paedophiles being arrested and deported to face prosecution back home.
If paedophiles are having greater difficulty preying on underage girls and boys, the same cannot be said in Thailand's oversized commercial sex industry. Particularly ugly and reprehensible is the fact that prostitution continues to flourish around the country, especially in Bangkok and other cities with large numbers of tourists.
Prostitution is big business and a fact of life, and we Thais would be deluding ourselves if we were to deny that much of the sex trade is home-grown and aimed mostly at Thai men. As long as the Kingdom's huge commercial sex industry continues to thrive, paedophiles will continue to come to here looking for the possibility of sex with children despite the tightening up of law enforcement.
Another worrying trend is that some paedophiles, fully aware that commercial sex involving minors has become scarcer and riskier here, now come to Thailand to live and work under the guise of legitimate professions like English teaching. Such jobs are plentiful and allow paedophiles access to impressionable youths.
Indeed, many paedophiles busted by the police were found to have used fake credentials to land teaching jobs at reputable schools, thanks to lax screening procedures and a failure by the Education Ministry to regulate language schools.
Foreigners who come here to prey on underage children are only exploiting opportunities that are available to all - Thai and foreigner alike - with the money and inclination to indulge in this social vice. It is simply easy for anyone to purchase sex anytime, anywhere.
Let's face it, with a commercial sex industry the size of ours, even conscientious, responsible and clean-living citizens don't know how they could help authorities enforce anti-paedophilia laws any better.
Although the police do launch crackdowns on paedophiles, they also have other problems to take care of. So it falls to Thai society to decide at some point whether it really wants to shed this decades-long notoriety.