The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

9th February 1997



The lost children of Asia

At first sight, they looked like a family of five on holiday in Europe. Except that the four Asian children being led through Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport had no luggage. The youngsters - two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 6 to 12- also seemed fearful. And with good reason. Not only were they strangers to each other, none of them knew the man they were with.

Those were the bare details of a chilling child-smuggling operation uncovered by Italian authorities last November. If it hadn't been for alert immigration officials, each of the children would probably have ended up in a different European city, where he or she would have been sold as a sex slave to a waiting customer.

They were saved by the fact that the oldest, a 12-year-old girl, had learned just a few words of a foreign language. As they were being shuffled past Italian passport control, she used them. "I1 n'est pas mon pere", she blurted out in shaky French. "He is not my father."

Who were these children? Press reports have never made that clear. Some said they were Cambodian; others suggested they were Chinese. And how did one of them manage to learn French? That question has not been answered either. What does seem certain is that the man they were with, a 51-year-old Cambodian named Cao Leng Hout, had collected them at Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport. And he had made similar runs before. In his bag, say police, were addresses and a catalogue of hundreds of photographs of Asian children, mostly girls, aged eight to 14.

The four children with Cao unwittingly turned the international spotlight on Asia's child-sex trade. It is difficult to give even approximate figures on how many of the region's children are caught up in this evil business. Some say a million. Possibly, but who can be sure when so much is hidden from public view and when the victims are terrorized into silence or degraded to the point that they do not even think to protest?

Some estimates put the number of under-age prostitutes in Thailand at 400,000. Of the 200,000 or so street children in the Philippines, about 60,000 sell their bodies. The total number of underage sex workers in the country, including part-timers and those in bars and brothels, is probably beyond calculation. India? About 400,000. Sri Lanka: over 28,000. Taiwan: between 40,000 and 60,000. Elsewhere? Who knows?

As for the cost of a young body, you can buy a child for as little as $1.40 in Delhi. A virgin or a boy or girl under six can cost upward of $140. In Hong Kong, a girl prostitute normally charges $135, boys a lot less. In Malaysia, the price of a virgin is $2,000. A 14-year-old girl or boy can be provided for $250 in Jakarta.

This trade is a stain on Asia's name. And it is growing in size, profits and depravity even as the region becomes wealthier and more sophisticated. In his distressingly frank book 'The Child and the Tourist', Ron O'Grady writes: ''When you encounter some of the young boys and girls who have become the victims of this trade, you begin to realize why the prostitution of children is now being seen as a crime against humanity."

Not all children are duped into this hellish world. Some pragmatically choose it as the only way out of poverty. A few even become relatively well off. But the vast majority are victims. Shelly is one of them. She was spotted one night by pimps in Manila's Luneta Park, a notorious hunting ground for commercial sex. "They promised to give me an education", she says. "I wanted to take a course in computer science." Instead, Shelly was drugged. When she woke up, she was in a room in a red-light district. She was fully clothed, except for her underpants. Unconscious, she had been sold to her first client. She was 14.

Southeast Asia is now the No. I world destination for tourists looking for sex. Many are from the West, but, contrary to popular belief, they are probably not the majority. Great numbers of Japanese and Chinese are also drawn by the low prices, easy access to prostitutes of either sex and almost any age and the absence - or lack of enforcement - of laws. Some cases have even involved Asian national politicians. But there is a distinction between sex seekers in general and hardcore paedophiles - those who are sexually attracted to children.

Western paedophiles are particularly attracted to Asian children. They generally have smoother skin than Caucasians and grow body hair later. So a boy of 12 can look as young as an eight-year-old. The illusion of having sexual relations with an infant is heightened. And because many of the children do not speak much English, forcible sex can often be passed off as a misunderstanding.

Chinese paedophiles prize sexual intercourse with young girls for the rejuvenating properties they believe are associated with the act. Author O'Grady says: "There is a surprisingly large number of againg and wealthy Chinese businessmen who believe they must deflower a virgin at least once a year to gain the energy needed to be successful in their business enterprise and have a long life." Social workers quote many girl prostitutes as saying their first experience of sex was being held down while an elderly Chinese man forced himself upon them. Female paedophiles are also known to visit Southeast Asia, but their numbers are believed to be small.

In Sri Lanka, the child sex business often makes use of children from orphanages along a stretch of coast from Negombo, north of the capital, Colombo, down to the southern coastline. Children from the orphanages, some of them run by Westerners, are taken to hotels to service foreign customers. The beaches are open pick-up spots. Tourists and prostitutes - mostly boys - can be seen engaged in horseplay, and more, in the shallow water.

Even in Malaysia, where the government purports to take an aggressive stand on moral issues, large numbers of girls under 16 are involved in prostitution. Says Aegile Fernandez, who works with the Kuala Lumpur-based Women's Force: "The girls we are now encountering - both foreign and local - are getting younger and younger."

Cambodia is the new frontier for paedophiles. Many of the girls in Phnom Penh's growing number of brothels and bars have been smuggled in against their will from Vietnam or lured from neighbouring villages. Some are so young they have no pubic hair or breasts. At home, they would be playing with dolls. Here, they are sex toys.

Cambodia is not the only new frontier for the buying and selling of young bodies. There is also the Internet. In the faceless cyber-universe, anyone with a PC and a modem can access this deviant world. One website offers what it terms "a collection of prostitution-related information about many countries in the world." Even a cursory search leads to paedophile-friendly newsgroups offering tips on sex with boys. One site features photographs of nude Japanese schoolgirls in erotic poses - ready to be downloaded with the click of a mouse. Also available on the Internet: a Cambodian child for sale. The price: $6.

Authorities the world over are now taking concerted action. In 1992, Interpol established a "standard working party" on offences against minors. The group, which consists of police in 30 countries, shares expertise and information on paedophile activities and cooperates in the investigation of child-sex crimes.

Lawmakers in the home countries of paedophile tourists are recognizing that they, too, have a role to play. Bent Bolin, a 69-year-old retired Swedish civil servant, was imprisoned for three months by a Stockholm court for soliciting sex with a 14-year-old while visiting Pattaya. Bolin was charged under a law that allows Swedish courts to try citizens for breaking a Swedish law in another country. Other countries have adopted similar laws or are considering them.

All this is encouraging. But there remains a core problem: many Asian economies rely heavily on tourist dollars. That is why some politicians, at the national and local level, are reluctant to take meaningful measures against the child-sex industry - and its accompanying specter of an AIDS epidemic. To do so would strike at the heart of economic development. And if there is no development, there is poverty. And poverty breeds desperation and prostitution. FACE's Wanchai says that in northern Thailand, some rural parents rear their daughters with the belief that they are meant to "sacrifice" themselves for the good of the family. In some cases, families sell their daughters into prostitution to earn money for television sets, video cameras, karaoke machines or even a nicer home.

UNICEF, the U.N. children's welfare organization, says: "The push to own, buy, rent - fueled by advertising, magazines and the entertainment media - encourages those who do not value their children. They simply trade them in for something they want more." UNICEF believes that children throughout Asia will continue to be exploited sexually if society constantly tells them that possessions are more important than dignity.-Asiaweek

Pakistan: eclipse of a dynasty?

Has another distinguished South Asia dynasty said a long good-bye to national politics and parliament? The Bhuttos were the Nehrus-Gandhis of Pakistan though parliamentary democracy did not take root so firmly in this Moslem state. In fact, Pakistan was destined to become India's implacable post-partition foe, with Kashmir as intractable a conflict as Palestine.

Soon the post-partition conflict became another theatre of the Cold War, with the contestants aligned one way or another to the rival titans, the US and the USSR (Non-alignment notwithstanding, Mrs. Indira Gandhi did sign a formal treaty with the Soviet Union, while remaining a vibrant democracy)

In Pakistan, democracy was a late-comer. "Despite demands from various quarters, elections were avoided. Even the principle of adult franchise was accepted about four years after independence and elections to the provincial assemblies were staggered over four years (1951-1954). These elections in the western provinces were blatantly rigged" observes I. A. Rehman, former Chief Editor of the Pakistan Times, and now director of the country's Human Rights Commission.

Assorted experiments in democracy did little to change the pattern. Rule by the Generals was the general rule, though some were quite innovative, like General Ayub Khan who contributed "Basic Democracy" to Pakistan's already picturesque political discourse. And that came after President Iskander Mirza had proclaimed that his people did not deserve democracy.

Martial Law was his alternative; an alternative he could not put to the test since he himself was "put on a plane for England" observes the Director of the Human Rights Commission.

Main factors

Political dynasties were built of course on recognised parliamentary parties in which succession was restricted to families of the founding fathers. Interestingly only the "right-wing fundamentalist Jamaat-Islami (I.I.)" has been able to conduct regular internal elections" notes Kamila Hyat, deputy editor of News on Friday.

Kashmir and the post-independence confrontation between Pakistan and India, as well as regional developments (Iran, Afghanistan and in some of the former republics of the Soviet Union) have raised the question of an Islamic resurgence in Pakistan. The media, academics and analysts in Pakistan itself, Islamabad-based diplomats and policy-makers in the world's most important capitals focused on this question rather than any other.

The other issue is more familiar - the role of the army, and its relationship with the new regime. Will Mr. Leghari be pressed to move towards an Islamic state? Governaknce is the other issue. An announcement by President Farook Leghari that the next important move should be a "National Security Council" not only underlines the growing importance of the President but his readiness to intervene in the political process, presumably in the "national interest".

Such a council would surely accommodate the three service chiefs. If this reading is correct then we must look forward, I believe, to a new structure of power that is certain to reshape governance quite dramatically.


"Mr. Leghari told newspaper editors in Lahore at the weekend the idea was under consideration as a way to stabilise the working of the country's governments", reported the Pakistani journalist Farhan Bokhari. President Leghari's post-polls plans were no "top secret". He had invited the editors of the leading national newspapers for a conference two weeks ago.

Evidently the idea was not exclusively the President's. The need for a benign presidential intervention had been discussed among Pakistan's top civil servants, all of whom were deeply disturbed by the "drift" and the "confusion" at the highest levels of decision-making in Islamabad.

It is this influential bureaucratic caucus that will initiate structural changes in Pakistan now that the people and the Pakistani power elite have decided that their country must join the "genuine" democracies before the century ends. The proposed National Security Council would of course include several "key" ministers nominated by the Prime Minister.

Interestingly the argument that finally clinched the issue was "corruption". The spokesman of the civil service or its top cadres pointed out to President Leghari that in the past six years three elected governments had been removed by the President on charges of rampant, top-level corruption.

"Pakistan stands at a crossroad.... corruption, waste and inefficiency have eaten into the vitals of our state" said President Leghari on a nationally televised pre-election address.

The refugees

This was the fourth national election in nine years, the surest sign of a large South Asian country (population 132 million) in desperate search of political stability. How to restore the old stability that was achieved only at an enormous price - democracy and human rights?

The other interesting, in fact unique, feature of the Pakistani polls was the contribution of the "Mohajirs". In the age of identity and ethnic revival, the mohajir is a rare species. The word simply means "refugee" and does represent race or religion.... or, as in India and other parts of the subcontinent, caste.

Of the 114 parties registered before last week's polls, the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) is probably the most interesting while the contest for power placed Benazir Bhutto (PPP) and Mian Nawaz Sharif on centre stage. The Mohajirs, faceless in the age of identity, controls Karachi, the commercial capital and the best known of Pakistani cities.

Since the Islamic factor has been highlighted, this observation by the Pakistani journalist Kamila Hyat, a deputy editor of The News, should be recorded. The MQM is the only party that has regular elections for party posts. It is not "personality-dominated", meaning a nationally or internationally known figure like Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif.

The MQM, though, is led by Altaf Hussain, an exile, based recently in London. The Urdu-speaking mohajirs, isolated from the population of rural Sindh by language and culture locked in a tussle for university places and government jobs, have carved out a distinct identity for itself...."

The imperative may be economic - jobs - but group "identity" is the mode of mass mobilisation and politicisation.

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