30 November 2005
by Daniel McGrory
Britons living on a Thai resort island that was damaged by the tsunami have joined an undercover team of volunteers to help trap sex tourists preying on youngsters.
This “foreign legion” comprises European expatriates who infiltrate bars around Patong Beach, which the authorities have been trying to purge of paedophiles since the tragedy last December.
John Turner, a 37-year-old systems analyst and one of the volunteers, said: “We can visit places where the police can’t go to look for under-age youngsters being used for sex.”
He and two others from the 60-strong force were dressed in T-shirts and shorts and sitting in a dimly lit bar after midnight, no more than 500 yards from the refurbished seafront.
Mr Turner, who has lived in southern Thailand for six years, said that a number of Europeans were awaiting trial next month on charges of trying to abduct children.
While most of the customers were watching teenage girls who were dancing on a bar in the backstreets of the Bangla district, the undercover squad was keeping an eagle eye on one patron who was chatting to a young street vendor in a torn dress who was selling chewing gum. She looked to be no more than eight years old.
Some of the civilian recruits work part time as volunteers for the Thai Tourist Police Division, but they are not armed and have no powers of arrest, so they call on officers to deal with any tourist they suspect of soliciting for under-age sex. The volunteers’ role is not without risk because a number of the bars are controlled by local gangs.
Olinto Barletta, an Italian photographer and police volunteer, said: “Since these civilian teams have been operating, the bar owners won’t risk using anyone under-age because they know what will happen if they are caught.” He described his undercover work last week in a gay bar, where an under-age boy was found among the dancers. The club was shut down immediately .
Signor Barletta, who has lived in Patong for 15 years, said that both men and women have been arrested in recent weeks for alleged child-sex offences.
Local officials are eager to improve the unsavoury reputation of Patong before Thailand becomes the focus of attention in the West, as the first anniversary of the Boxing Day disaster approaches. More than 300 people — holidaymakers and local residents — are believed to have been killed by the tidal wave at this resort. In the immediate aftermath Thai ministers vowed to close down the sex bars.
Graham Tardif, of the charity World Vision International, said: “The intentions were honourable, but the club scene in Patong makes too much money for it to go quietly.” He said that the Government had poured millions into rebuilding the infrastructure of Patong to encourage tourists to return.
There are concerns among aid organizations that the anniversary of the tsunami will attract a wave of bogus charity workers. World Vision has produced a series of posters for schools, children’s groups and refugee centres, advising youngsters, their parents and teachers what to do if strangers come offering gifts.
Mr Tardif said: “There have been some dodgy groups pitching up here, claiming to be from all sorts of charities and offering gifts and help for children, and Thai communities don’t know what to do. It is part of their culture not to be rude to guests and to be grateful if offered a gift.”
A Greek visitor who is awaiting trial allegedly tried to “adopt” half a dozen youngsters from a refuge and take them to what he claimed was a charity that he ran in northern Thailand. He had no documents to support his claims, so a suspicious teacher called in the police.
There are no figures for how many workers in the Patong sex industry perished in the tsunami or fled shortly afterwards, but they were soon replaced. Unicef, the UN children’s agency, has given warning that some of the new recruits have contracted HIV