With the enormous number of people going online in Thailand, more and more children are being lured into participating in so-called live "shows" directed by paedophiles, child advocates warn.
Speaking at the "Protecting Children from Online Sexual Exploitation" seminar held by Thai Media Fund, Pol Capt Khemachart Prakaihongmanee, deputy director of the Bureau of Foreign Affairs and Transnational Crime at the Department of Special Investigation, said Thailand was experiencing a surge in paedophile activity, with predators orchestrating and watching abuse on live-streaming sites and via webcams, and paying for it with near-untraceable cryptocurrency.
"Paedophiles can now use an array of mobile and online tools -- including social networks, video-sharing sites and the dark web -- to direct and watch child rape and sexual abuse anonymously," he said. "It's live, nothing is recorded ... everything is encrypted. They sometimes pay in bitcoins, or encrypted money, which makes their transactions secure," he added.
Pol Capt Khemachart also said that easy access to the net and money transfer services make Thailand a global hotspot for paedophilia.
According to data from the Digital Economy and Society Ministry, about 70% of the Thai population either owns or has access to a smartphone, while an estimated 67% of Thais also have access to the internet. A study in 2018 showed that Thais aged between eight and 12 spend up to 35 hours per week on the net, which is three hours more than the global average, and that 60% of them are at risk of being exploited via online platforms.
Pol Capt Khemachart said that though many websites with child abuse content have been tracked down by Thai authorities and foreign agencies, he believes there is still a "phenomenal" number of sites run by paedophiles on the so-called dark net.
The dark net has networks that can only be accessed using specific software that re-routes connections through several servers, allowing users to remain anonymous. Websites on the dark net are not indexed, which means they do not appear when looked for with a search engine like Google.
"Paedophiles sit somewhere in the dark net and access the internet to release material. The harder we work to remove the content, the harder they make it for us to find them," he said.
"There is still a phenomenal amount of questionable content out there."
Pol Col Khemachart said in order to combat this issue, Thailand will have to improve its national database -- a vital tool for finding and identifying both victims and perpetrators -- as well as invest more to boost the capacity of law enforcers and police officers. He said Thailand should also consider recruiting more women to the police force.
Pol Col Sarawut Khonyai, deputy commissioner of the Provincial Police Region 6, said that while the internet offers a seemingly unlimited supply of potential victims, it also provides paedophiles a way of making money through the sale of sexually explicit photos and videos.
"This economic opportunity has created a new demographic of abusers, people who do not abuse children for personal pleasure, but do it to make money. Since the sale and purchase of child pornography is a crime, the money offered on the black market is quite high," he said.
Pol Col Sarawut said this places a huge burden on the government and schools, working to make children aware of the dangers of sexual abuse and online sex trafficking, teaching them to protect themselves and notifying authorities of suspicious behaviour.
Siriwan Vongkietpaisan, director of the Social Responsibility Legal Advocacy Work, said the media can play a key role in getting the public to understand the changing patterns of child abuse, though they must be very careful when reporting as it can distress the victim.