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
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
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.
DOCILE AND OBEDIENT
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 PRICE OF A VIRGIN
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd.