BANGKOK - Thailand has toughened its penalties for sharing photos and videos of sexual assault as the country grapples with a reported rise in child sex trafficking and a growing crop of "webcam centers" to exploit it.
But rights groups say most of Thailand's neighbors have yet to toughen their laws to tackle online child abuse in an increasingly wired region, and that even the Thai legal update may leave some troubling trends largely unchecked.
"It's great, what they've done. It's really good in terms of the legal framework. That's fine. But there still needs [to be] some other reforms to be done, especially in relation to livestreaming," said François-Xavier Souchet, Thailand country manager for Terre des Hommes, a child rights group.
The changes took effect Monday and double the prison terms for convicted rapists — which mostly range up to 20 years — who record their assaults and share the material. They raise prison terms by a third for rapists who record their assaults to exploit victims.
Prison terms for rapists in positions of authority over their victims, such as relatives and teachers, also were raised by a third.
Rights groups widely consider the number of reported rapes only a small fraction of the actual number, given the stigma victims can face and the pressures they often come under to stay silent.
In April, though, the Royal Thai Police Crime Suppression Division singled out rape as the "No. 1 public enemy" in the country. Citing police figures, the Bangkok Post said reported rape cases had dropped from 3,240 in 2015 to 2,109 the following year, but picked up again to 2,535 in 2017.
Also in 2017, in a report on the latest trends in human trafficking into Thailand from its neighbors, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identified the trafficking of children for webcam sex shows as an emerging problem.
At the report's launch, the UNODC said demand for sex with children was a growing driver of human trafficking across the Mekong region and that it had recently noticed webcam centers exploiting children moving from the Philippines to Thailand.
"Sadly, it has been part of a larger trend in the region," the UNODC's representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, told VOA this week.
"Now they have so many cases about the use [of] the webcam," agreed Jaded Chaowilai, director of Thailand's Women and Men Progressive Movement, which helps rape victims.
"The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is an ongoing issue," said Damian Kean, spokesman for ECPAT International, a child advocacy group based in Bangkok.
"While we have no evidence to suggest that it is on the rise, we do know that certain manifestations of this crime are increasing," he said, "particularly sexual exploitation by travelers and tourists as Thailand's tourism industry flourishes; online child sexual exploitation as internet coverage improves; and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes as neighboring countries suffer humanitarian crises."
Many of the cases of livestreaming, Kean added, "are facilitated by those in the child's circle of trust, including often parents."
The newly enacted legal amendments help address both problems by stiffening prison terms for rapists who record and share the abuse and have authority over the victim.
But rights groups worry that the law's failure to specifically address livestreaming, where the abuse is not actually recorded, may prove a loophole for getting out of the tougher penalties.
"Once you stop the, I don't know, Skype session or the Facebook Live, it's just gone, it's just gone," said Souchet, of Terre des Hommes.
He worries that the people who watch the shows — and often direct the abuse — also may fall through the cracks.
"The person who is watching, who is kind of ordering the abuse and directing the abuse sometimes, and opening this kind of livestream to other people for ... financial purposes, right? This guy, his responsibility, can he be charged against rape as an accomplice? This is not clear, because there's no ... direct physical abuse from his side. So that's a legal challenge," he said.
While Thailand is not alone in the region in toughening its rape laws — Myanmar in March upped the possible prison term for the rape of children under 12 to life — it is still an outlier.
"Thailand remains somewhat exceptional in this regard," said Douglas. "Positively, governments in the region are taking the issue of online child exploitation more seriously and they are cooperating on cross-border cases, although it is not enough and tends to be reactive."
Souchet said he recently heard from a victims shelter in Thailand that is concerned more pedophiles active in the country are moving to Laos to evade capture, and that authorities in Myanmar increasingly are worried about becoming "another Thailand" for child sex offenders as the country opens up.
Combating the problem "should be a regional effort," he said.