Asia-Pacific, Headlines

CHILDREN-SRI LANKA: At the Mercy of Sex Tourists

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Feb 11 1998 (IPS) - Fighting its image of a country torn by civil war, Sri Lanka has been rolling out the red carpet to foreign tourists who come in thousands every year to the golden beaches and ancient sites.

The sunny beaches, however, are also a magnet for sex tourists, particularly Western paedophiles who find young boys easy prey in a country where the majority of people are poor.

Tourism is Sri Lanka’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner, and it was only recently that the government acknowledged the ugly side of the tourist trade under pressure from child rights activists.

Last April, a 52-year-old Swiss businessman, Victor Baumann was deported on charges of being a paedophile after having lived in Sri Lanka for 15 years.

“Because of our colonial mentality, the white man is seen as a privileged guest, and nobody dares complain about the exploitation of poor children,” says Arun Tampoe, a lawyer and activist at the forefront of a campaign against paedophilia.

Another long-staying foreign guest of Sri Lanka, Arthur C. Clarke, arguably one of the the world’s greatest science fiction writers, is fighting off allegations of paedophilia. On Feb. 1, the London ‘Sunday Mirror’ called Clarke a “paedophile”, and quoted him as saying most of his partners had reached puberty.

British-born Clarke, celebrated writer of the visionary ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ immediately dismissed the report as “totally” false, saying he personally disliked paedophiles and that he was seeking legal advice against the British newspaper.

Clarke, 80, has lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, and was to have been knighted by Britain’s Prince Charles, during Sri Lanka’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations here on Feb. 4. But when the story broke, Clarke asked for a postponement of his investiture to “avoid embarrassment to the Prince of Wales”.

An embarrassed Sri Lankan government has been silent on the controversy swirling around its famous guest who was the first foreigner to be given tax-free status and is the chancellor of the technical Moratuwa University on the outskirts of Colombo.

Deputy Inspector General of Police M.S.M. Nizam, in charge of crimes and those against children, said the police were trying to verify the story. But most people think the government will do nothing to embarrass Clarke.

“My guess is that Clarke may ride out the storm. He is quoted extensively in the story so it appears there has been some meeting of sorts between Clarke and someone working for the newspaper,” said a city executive.

Colombo business circles reacted with shock and horror when Victor Baumann confessed to a life of paedophilia. As the head of an electronics firm in the free trade zone where foreign enterprises operate without restrictions, he was well known.

But his sex life was a well kept secret until Swiss police arrived in mid-1996 to question him over the death of a boy in Switzerland. Subsequent investigations revealed he had sexually abused 10 Sri Lankan boys. Baumann was deported, and is facing trial in Switzerland.

Baumann’s case was investigated by the police with help from PEACE (Protect the Environment and Children Everywhere), which is affiliated to the Bangkok-based worldwide charity ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism).

Tampoe, legal counsel for PEACE, said the group was set up in 1991 when it became evident that sex tourism was a “serious problem”. But even he cannot guess the extent of paedophilia.

PEACE chief Maureen Seneviratne thinks the Clarke case is just one of many cases of people “sitting pretty here”. “We’re not witch-hunting paedophiles,” she clarifies, “because we do not have the resources or the authority to legally monitor them. We work with children who have been victims.”

It was pressure from PEACE and other private groups that forced the ruling Chandrika Kumaratunga government to make sweeping changes in the law regarding sexual offences against children, in October 1995.

The maximum jail term for paedophiles was doubled to 20 years, and victims entitled to compensation. Sri Lankan law defines a child as under 18 years, but special protection is given to those under 16 “because they are incapable of giving consent to a sexual act,” Tampoe explains.

However, tighter controls have done nothing to stop foreign sex journals from publicising Sri Lanka as a cheap haven for sex

tourists. Estimates of young boys in the thriving sex industry here vary from 5,000 to 30,000, according to activists here.

Last year a Dutch tourist was deported home to face trial for sexual abuse offences in Sri Lanka under a law that allows extra- territorial jurisdiction. Two other foreigners are serving short terms in Sri Lankan prisons.

Lawyer Tampoe said that recently a British journalist, tracking a British paedophile ring, came to Sri Lanka and established contact with a man who exclusively provided Britons with boys. “It was an amazing discovery,” he said.

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