Michael Sebastian (center) has been indicted in the US on three counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places and three counts of sex trafficking involving children.
Michael Sebastian, a 52-year-old American, seemed like a decent man, one of those expats living in Laos who take it upon themselves to help disadvantaged local youngsters.
Sebastian, who first landed in Laos as a tourist in 2008 by his own account, began teaching English to some teenagers for free and went on to set up an educational charity in the town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
He even provided housing to at least three of the boys, who ranged in age from 13 to 18, in the impoverished small communist nation.
Yet on Aug. 28 the middle-aged American, a tall, lanky fellow who returned to the United States earlier this year, was indicted in his home state of Massachusetts on three counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places and three counts of sex trafficking involving children.
According to the prosecution, Sebastian used his small charity and English lessons as a front for grooming boys in Laos, including those to whom he provided housing.
“In lieu of paying rent to live with him, Sebastian allegedly allowed the boys to pay off their rent by performing chores,” the Department of Justice notes in a statement issued on Aug. 28. “According to the charging documents, these chores included giving Sebastian massages — which, in turn, included masturbating Sebastian.”
FBI agents and a team of investigators in Laos began looking into the expat’s doings after they learned that he was allowing teenage boys to live in his rented home for the equivalent of US$11 a month and told the boys that they could earn “credits” toward that amount by performing various services for him. These services allegedly included sex acts, for which the boys could earn $1 off their rent for each act, according to the prosecution.
The case shocked residents in the North Shore region of Massachusetts where Sebastian, a resident, had been raising funds for his Laos-based charity called the S.M.I.L.E. Project, whose initials stand for Supporting Multitudes in Life and Education. He said he was raising money to pay for the education of children and teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“My mission is to offer FREE education, nutritional aid and healthcare assistance to impoverished, abandoned, orphaned and underprivileged youth lacking the funds and resources for quality education and nourishment in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and create economic mobility for the students, their families, and indeed whole communities,” the American says on his website, which features a photo of three teenage Laotian boys as Buddhist monks.
“In addition to the free classes that I teach, I also help students attain scholarships and sponsorships to provide the opportunity of attending high school, university and a variety of extracurricular classes. In my own classroom, I am committed to providing an experience that activates the mind and empowers individuals to achieve their full potential while maintaining compassion for themselves and others to create a stronger, happier and more supportive global community.”
In March, Sebastian, who claims on his website to have held a variety of jobs over the decades from medical consultancy to life coaching, even held a fundraiser at a place of worship in the town of Marblehead for his alleged educational project in Laos.
“I taught meditation and Buddhist dharma to assist others in living from the heart, cultivating compassion, patience and tolerance, embodying peace, acting with kindness, working collectively and serving those in need,” he explains on his website.
He was arrested on July 7 at his mother’s home in Lynn and was released to home confinement following a detention hearing on July 31. If convicted of the various charges, he could be sentenced to between 30 years and life in prison and slapped with a $250,000 fine.
His case is hardly unique. Over the years numerous expatriates from the West and elsewhere have been suspected of preying on underprivileged youngsters, both boys and girls, under the guise of running charity projects on their behalf in countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Children in Laos, a communist holdout where law enforcement is often lax and poverty remains endemic, are especially at risk of being groomed and trafficked by unscrupulous locals and foreigners alike. Making matters worse is that local authorities often turn a blind eye to the exploitation of children, rights experts say.
“There are no child-friendly mechanisms to report sexual abuse and exploitation, and no systems to refer child victims to support services [in Laos],” noted Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, a Dutch jurist who, until April this year, was the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
“Moreover, while child victims are blamed for their situation, the exploiters continue acting with utter impunity, sometimes with the complicity of officials,” she added.
Sebastian is no longer in a position to exploit Laotian youngsters and will likely never return to Laos. In 2012, the American took Bounthan, a then 20-year-old young man from a family of farmers in Luang Prabang province, to the United States on a fundraising trip.
The Laotian youngster, who had lived in a monastery for years, described his foreign benefactor as someone whose “mind is like a monk’s,” according to a news report published that year in the US.
Yet if the prosecution is right about Sebastian, who claimed to be a devout Buddhist, the American’s mind was rather not like that at all.