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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”



For sale: Burmese virgins

Thousands of young women cross the northern border in the hope of making their fortunes in Thailand's sex trade, and many return home with more than they bargained for

It is with great pride that Srima, a 21-year-old woman from the Shan State in northern Burma, tells how she recently bought a plot of land for her parents in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, and in the next few months, will have a small house built there.

After three years of hard work moving from one brothel to another, Srima's dream has finally come true. With a home in Thailand, the woman believes, her parents can settle peacefully here, instead of risking their lives in the war-torn Shan State.

The family will soon re-unite. And everything seems perfect, except that Srima - the family's only breadwinner - may not live long enough to enjoy all this. She is now infected with Aids.

A similar fate befalls many girls from Burma. Across the 2,400-kilometre border, tens of thousands of Burmese women have come to Thailand in the hope of "making it" here. Nobody wants to return home empty-handed. Some girls do manage to send a lot of money back home, but unfortunately many, like Srima, also end up with Aids.

A combination of factors draws Burmese girls to seek their fortunes here - income disparity between Thailand and Burma, easy transportation and well-connected international sex trade rackets - reveals a recent research paper, "The Passage of Women from Neighbouring Countries into the Sex Trade in Thailand" by Dr Kritaya Archavanitkul and Ponsook Kertsawang.

According to the research, Thailand's current economic slump has not affected the sex industry. The luring of women into prostitution continue unabated and has even become more sophisticated with less force being used and more "soft tricks" which prove just as effective.

This means women, especially those from less-prosperous, neighbouring countries, can be sucked in to the flesh trade more easily.

At present, by the researchers' conservative estimation, there are at least 10,000 sex workers from our neighbouring countries of Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and southern China working in Thailand. Most come from Burma.


Prostitution in Thailand is changing its face. Because of persistent campaigning by the government as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), each year fewer Thai girls enter the sex business.

To meet the steadily high demand, foreign girls, therefore, are recruited instead. This technique is becoming more popular among racketeers because of a plentiful supply, a cheaper price, and Thai men's desire to try "something different".

"International trafficking of sex workers is encroaching the borders and reaching into the home of our neighbours," said Dr Kritaya.

Northern Burma is affected the most. "History repeats itself. What is happening in the Shan State right now is like what happened in the North of Thailand 15 years ago, when many northern Thai girls left their homes to enter the sex industry," said the researcher and lecturer at Mahidol University's Institute for Population and Social Research.

In their survey conducted in over 40 brothels in 18 provinces last year, the Mahidol researchers failed to find young girls from northern Thailand just entering the trade.

Such girls are kept in school due to the continuous efforts of the government and NGOs in campaigning against child prostitution, said the research paper. Most of the Thai sex workers they found were those who had been in the business for over three years.

"If anybody want to find 'fresh' girls, they have to look for dek nok (foreign girls)," revealed Bird, manager of an established massage parlour. These days, many brothels and entertainment places, especially those of lower grades, only have foreign girls for service. Shan and Tai-Lue girls from the Shan State are the largest group.


Apart from plentiful supply and cheap prices, girls from Burma are also favoured by the procurers and customers because of their innocence. "Shan girls are sweet and very obedient, while Thai girls give me a headache. They are drunkards, spendthrifts and gamblers. Sometimes they even cheat me. Now I employ only Shan girls and I can do business more easily," said Nuek, 40, who has run a brothel for 12 years. The language barrier also keep the foreign girls silent and submissive.

"They often do everything the customers asks," added Nuek.

In addition to their docility, the women's physical appearance is also attractive to customers. Young and fair with long hair, the Shan girls are beautiful in Thai men's eyes. But their best selling point is their virginity. Many men believe that sleeping with a virgin will give them a long life and energise their sexual appetite. "Lots of Thai and foreign men go straight to Mae Sai to sleep with virgins from Burma. This is an established business on the Thai-Burma border," said Dr Kritaya.

Agents first contact the parents of young Shan girls, then take photos of their daughters. They then put together a catalogue featuring photos of the girls for their customers to choose. When selected, the girls are brought from villages in Burma to a hotel in Mae Sai.




The story of Soy, a 19-year-old Tai-Lue girl, is typical. At 16, she was summoned from the rice fields to have her "first time" with a Japanese tourist. She earned 15,000 baht. Three months later, Soy did it again with another Japanese man. For her "second time", the price dropped to 8,000 baht. The offer of such a large sum of money both puzzles and entices many villagers in Burma, said Dr Kritaya. Some, therefore, feel that if the "first time" is worth that much cash, their daughters should do it. Nevertheless, at the time they have no intention of allowing their daughters to become prostitutes. "I felt frightened when the agent brought me to the hotel. But my father said me that all women have to lose their virginity. Losing it now or later is no different," said Soy, who currently works in a brothel in central Thailand.

Soy went back to work at home after her first and second time. A year later, she got bored with her job of weaving and wanted to do something else that could make her a lot of money. She decided to enter the sex business. "My dad didn't give me his consent to become a prostitute. Losing your virginity for money and being a sex worker are not the same, he said. But I want to stand on my own two feet. I feel useless at home." Money, it is said, speaks louder than anything else. But in the case of girls from Burma, it's also the agitation they feel in their tumultuous home country with its ongoing civil wars that pushes them into Thailand.

"What can we do in Burma? We have no money but we need to eat. Burmese soldiers don't love the people. They force us to work but pay us nothing. They also extort money or rice from us. If we don't give it to them, we may get raped," complained Kham Euay, 19, a Tai-Lue girl from Shan State. "So coming to seek our fortune here, I thought, is better than starving at home," added the girl, who is also now infected with the Aids virus.

Instability in the home, the Mahidol researchers said, together with the "dutiful daughter" culture are two of the main factors which push girls from Burma into prostitution. Like their Thai sisters across the border, Shan and Tai Lue girls from northern Burma feel that being the family breadwinner is the greatest way to show gratitude to their parents. "With such perceptions in their minds, it is no wonder that Shan and Tai Lue women come to the flesh trade in the largest number of all foreign sex workers," explained Dr Kritaya. Such is the case with Lah, a 21-year-old Shan woman who now has Aids. Years ago, Lah's mother told her if she wanted to build a house for the family, she should go to work "like others". "At first, I got angry at my mother. But she cried and complained that I wouldn't sacrifice anything for the family. So I decided to work in a brothel. Now everyone at home asks me for money. My brother never feeds the family," murmurred Lah.

"They don't know how much suffering I have to tolerate. Can anybody tell me what else Shan girls can do apart from selling their flesh?" As Thai sex workers head for richer pastures elsewhere in Asia and Europe, girls from Burma sneak into Thailand. Unlike other illegal immigrants from Burma who usually pass through Kanchanaburi, most of the sex workers use the Tachilek-Mae Sai route to enter the country.

The promotion of tourism in Keng Tung - a large city in Shan state - and of the Quadrangle Economic Zone, which comprises bits of Thailand, China, Burma and Laos, help strengthen the international sex trade rackets in this area, stated the Mahidol researchers.



Three-quarters of the Burmese women are accompanied by agents or acquaintances. Generally, they have to pay the agent's commission and travelling expenses themselves. The expenses can range from a few thousand to 30,000 baht. All too often, the girls fall into debt even before they start working. According to the research, the foreign girls usually began their jobs near the border for a period of time. When they get acquainted with the Thai language and people, the agents will bring them south.

The agents will put six or seven girls in a van or pick-up truck and travel from one brothel to another. Brothel owners pay the agents a fee for the girls of their choice, with the least beautiful being priced the lowest. The money is then deducted from the girls' earnings.

According to the Mahidol research, such rackets can exist only with the cooperation of the Thai authorities.

"We are confident that the police won't bother us. A police officer even accompanied us in our van," said Fah, a Burmese-Shan girl now working in a massage parlor.

Without such cooperation, procurers and sex workers would run into trouble with the law as the women are illegal workers as well as working in a prohibited trade.

"Even the work permit of illegal immigrants and also the temporary permit for stateless people can't protect these sex workers, although some pay a lot of money for these cards," said Dr Kritaya.

The alien prostitution problems are made more complicated by the fact that agents now use sophisticated methods to seduce foreign sex workers into the business.

"Currently, the agents don't force women into prostitution. Sometimes they lure the women into the fringe trade - like massage parlours or karaoke bars - and let various forces pull them into selling sex," said Dr Kritaya.

One strong force is the pull of money. When Payom, a Shan woman, decided to shift from 70-baht-a-day construction work in Bangkok to a traditional massage parlour in a nearby province, she thought the 4,000-baht monthly pay would be enough without having to sleep with the customers.

A month later, the 34-year-old mother of three changed her mind as she found she had to spend a lot of money on looking good. She started having sex with her customers for additional income.

"Since I travelled this far, I want to make as much money as I can," said Payom.

In addition, the structure of some establishments make the women think they are not selling sex.

In traditional massage parlours where a lot of girls from Burma work, the women can say no to customers who want sex with them, so they think that they are not prostitutes.

"Since customers need to woo these girls before asking to sleep with them, the girls think they are sleeping with boyfriends, not customers. If they trust the man, they don't use a condom which makes them very vulnerable to Aids," added Dr Kritaya. Burmese girls working in Thailand are mostly poorly educated and ignorant and, therefore, have a high rate of contracting Aids. For example, many believe that taking a pill like Postinor after sex can prevent them from getting Aids and, thus, they need not use condoms.

In addition, their lack of Thai language skills, their constant moving about and short stays in the trade make them less likely to get Aids-prevention information and services from officials and NGOs.

"Because of the language problem, even those who know they have contracted Aids receive little information and counselling provided here," said the research. "While some continue to work in sex services, others return to their home country."

The researchers recommended that the Thai government, in cooperation with NGOs, aim to eradicate international sex rackets. Meanwhile, they should offer better treatment to the foreign sex workers already here and support the organisations campaigning against prostitution in neighbouring countries.

Moreover, the government should protect the legal and human rights of these young women and, at the same time, push other ASEAN countries to see the international sex industry as a regional problem.

"The authorities and those involved should take serious action right now before it is too late," emphasised Dr Kritaya. If not, the sad tales of Srima, Lah, Payom or Soy, will be told again and again as more and more foreign girls come to Thailand to seek their fortunes.

Bankok Post
The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd.