According to locals, she was about 10 years old, wearing pigtails and frilly dresses, which got the cynical motorcycle-taxi drivers in Glitter's neighborhood gossiping. "I said, 'Oh, that little girl is very lucky to have a rich man adopt her,'" recalls neighbor Khim Piseth, who manages a guest house, "and the drivers just laughed at me. They said she's not so lucky."
Glitter unofficially adopted the girl, whose name is not known, and lived with her and her mother in his apartment three years after a well-publicized conviction in London for having child pornography on his computer, for which he served two months in prison. He lived undisturbed under his given names of Paul Francis until last month, when the U.K.'s Sun tabloid discovered his idyll in a country it dubbed a "pervert's paradise." Within days, Cambodian authorities questioned Glitter, confiscated his passport, and then requested that the singer leave the country or be deported.
Maybe Glitter was in Cambodia for the temples. But a whole lot of foreign men come for underage girls, who are cheap and readily available. Rarely are the customers arrested and when they are, too often the charges vanish in a haze of bribes and midnight flights. Of dozens of foreigners arrested on child exploitation charges in the past five years, only one, British school principal John Keeler, has served more than a year in prison—and Keeler famously protested his conviction by throwing a chair in court and screaming that he'd been promised an acquittal if he paid the judge $3,000. Cambodia has an estimated 20,000 child prostitutes. An hour with a 14-year-old at the squalid Svay Pak sex district costs about $5. A virgin can be deflowered for as little as $200.
One of the reasons Cambodia is blasE about foreigners using child prostitutes is that so many Cambodian men do it, too. Late last year, female parliamentarian Khem Chamroeun pointed her finger around the National Assembly and declared that some of her fellow lawmakers were known to patronize underage prostitutes. No one contradicted her. "A man going to a brothel is the same as going for a beer," says Mu Sochua, the outspoken Minister of Women's Affairs.
Sochua says she's concerned about exploitation—not prostitution, which she wants to legalize. About half of Cambodia's prostitutes were forced into the trade against their will. Some, like 15-year-old Srey Aun, were sold by their own mothers. Aun was 12 when her mother took her from her home province of Mondolkiri to Phnom Penh where, after some haggling, she sold her for $150. She spent the next three years locked in a room serving six to eight men a day—Cambodian police, Thai businessmen, French tourists—until she escaped.
Glitter's stay in Cambodia is coming to an end. But the tragic truth is that his high-profile case is a reminder that for too many foreigners and Cambodians the country is a playground for people who prey on the young.