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Burmese Women Sex Workers in Thaila

Subject: Burmese Women Sex Workers in Thailand

A brief report by Images Asia
(Email: dg@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx)

(This brief report is based on a series of interviews with Burmese women
currently working in the sex industry, in brothels in Thailand. 
Information was also collected from interviews with brothel owners, pimps,
customers, trafficking-agents, NGO workers , and government officials. 
Thus, research has been conducted over a six-month period, along the
Thailand Burma border, and within Thailand itself.  The report is not
intended to present detailed case studies, but a general overview of the
situation of B urmese sex- workers in Thailand.  Readers are advised to
contact IMAGES ASIA for the full research report will be completed and
distributed in early 1996, after further documentation.)


The past few decades of rapid economic development in Thailand, and a boom
in tourism, culminated in Visit Thailand Year 1987.  Nearly four million
tourists visited Thailand in that year alone, and one year later the
number of tourists visiting Thailand i ncreased to five million.  A large
number of these tourists came to buy sex.  Today sex-tourism continues to
boom in Thailand.  The rate of AIDS infection among sex-workers in
Thailand has now reached such a high level, that sex tourists prefer to
have se xual intercourse with children, or women who have recently arrived
to Thailand, who are considered to be "HIV-free". 


While many sex-workers of Thai nationality are leaving Thailand in order
to earn a higher income in other richer countries, many women from
neighboring countries are leaving their homes for Thailand, to earn their
living as sex workers.  Most of these wo men are from Burma, Cambodia,
Laos and some are from Yunnan province of the People's Republic of China. 


Most Burmese people leaving for Thailand have two different types of
backgrounds. The first type are those who were political activists, who
escaped to Thailand, after the brutal suppressions of the student led
pro-democracy uprisings in Burma in 1988, in order to continue their
struggle for democracy and human rights.  The second type, which includes
the laborers and sex-workers, have migrated to Thailand because of the
economic situation in Burma. 

Burmese economic development has over the past 30 years gone in an
opposite direction to Thailand.  Due to increasing inflation under the
disastrous "Burmese Road to Socialism", the economic system of the regime
prior to 1988, and the mismanagement of the national income and the market
economy, by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) today, it
has become very difficult for ordinary Burmese people to survive inside
their own country. 

Civil war has raged in Burma for nearly half a century, and the people
have suffered accordingly.  Human rights abuses by the army are
commonplace; people throughout the country are forced to be "porters", and
other forms of forced labor, by the Burmese m ilitary.  Consistent
evidence shows that the ethnic women, whose territories are close to the
Thailand, are often raped when the Burmese soldiers cross their villages
to attack armed ethnic organizations along Thai- Burma border.  Such
events have forced Burmese men and women to leave the country and find
work in Thailand.  Despite the fact that they are packing up their whole
lives, and are opting for an uncertain future in a foreign country, they
are willing to take great risks, as any situation is pref erable to life
under the Burmese military regime, the SLORC. 


The dream in the minds of most Burmese laborers and sex-workers in
Thailand, is to save a large amount of money by working hard at their
jobs, then to go back to their homes in Burma, improve their lives, and
support their families.  The feeling of many B urmese women who migrate to
Thailand, is that they are responsible to financially support their
parents or family, back in their homes. 

Burmese laborers and sex workers who are brought to different parts of
Thailand by agents (including some Thai officials), are essential to meet
the demand for cheap labor in the Thai economy.  Many Thai businesses run
on cheap Burmese labor, such as good s industries, logging companies,
construction companies and brothels.  However, though many Burmese work
very hard for years, their dreams seldom become reality, as the money they
had expected, and worked for, seldom comes to their hands. 


Numerous interviews with Burmese sex workers revealed they had arrived at
the border by using one of three routes: the Tachilek-Mae Sai route, the
Myawaddy-Mae Sot route, or the Kawthaung-Ranong route.  The Thai
immigration restrictions for these routes a re not so strict.  However,
some arrive in Thailand without using these routes, instead they use
secret jungle paths, in different locations along the Thai-Burmese border. 
Women who travel, and those who are trafficked from Burma to Thailand, use
both th e official and unofficial routes. 


There are two different methods for Burmese to get permission from local
Thai officials for a temporary stay in Thailand.  In 1994, the Thai
Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare guaranteed work permits for Burmese
working in ten Thai border provinces.  La borers associated with a Thai
firm can get documents for a year-long temporary stay in Thailand as long
as their boss, or the business official concerned, guarantees the
continuation of their job in that particular firm or industry.  However,
even laborer s bearing documents issued by Thai officials may be arrested
at any time, if their boss asks the officials to do so, or the officials
(especially the police and the immigration staff) need some bribe money
from the Burmese who were arrested. 

In most cases, sex-workers do not have any kind of direct connection with
the Thai officials, or any access to identity documents to state that they
are Thai, or that they can legally work in the Kingdom.  On behalf of the
sex-workers, the brothel owners, or the agents, create an understanding
with the officials by giving them bribe money, which is calculated in
accordance with the number of sex-workers in an establishment.  Five
hundred Baht (US $20) per sex-worker, per month, is a common "fee". 
However , the understanding is not made between the sex-workers and the
officials, which is why the sex-workers may be arrested if there is a
crackdown on brothels.  Sometimes the brothel owner or agent even asks the
police make the arrests.  This kind of arrest happens often when the
owners or agents do not want to give the sex-workers money that they owe


They are two different causes leading Burmese women into sex-industry in
Thailand.  The first, as some human rights organizations such as Human
Rights Watch/Asia have reported, is women who are forced into the
sex-industry. Many Burmese women become sex-w orkers because they have
been forced into it or "trafficked".  While other countries in the region
are still economically underdeveloped, Thailand is comparatively
well-developed.  Some women therefore want to work in Thailand even though
they don't know in what sort of job they may be employed.  Agents manage
to persuade these women by giving them guarantees that they will be able
to support their families with their incomes, after they have been
employed for some time in jobs that the agent is proposing , such as house
maids, dish-washers, and nannies,.  These agents play the most important
role in the trafficking of women.  The women who become sex-workers
unwillingly in this way can be categorized as those that have been forced
into the job. 


The second cause of Burmese women becoming sex-workers, is because they
have chosen to do so.  Some women choose to be sex workers in Thailand
after some of their friends who have been have sex-workers told them about
the situation of sex-industry in Thai land.  Women continue to come even
after many reports about forced labor in the sex-industry have spread
abroad.  Women who dare to face these conditions, and who understand very
well how they can be abused by the agents or the brothel owners, willingly
o pt for the life of a sex worker, as they are hoping to earn a lot of
money from the job.  However, even though such sex-workers are not forced
by any particular individual, they are still being forced into the job by
the political and economic situation i n their own country.  The lack of
employment opportunities for women inside Burma, and the on-going
oppression by the government, are forcing the women to leave for Thailand
to seek work in the sex-trade . 

With more reports being published about women who were forced into
sex-industry, that criticize the abuses against Burmese sex-workers by
those who forced the women into the industry, the process of women being
forced into prostitution appears to be decli ning.  However there has been
a corresponding increase in the number of Burmese women actually choosing
to be sex-workers.  Therefore, the number of women in the sex industry has
not decreased. 


The question may be raised as to whether the sex-industry is acceptable or
not in terms of Burmese culture.  In fact, Burmese culture, based on
Theravada Buddhist law, strictly prohibits women from having any kind of
sexual intercourse before being legall y married to a man.  The Buddha's
teaching also strictly prohibits a man from having sexual relations with a
women, if one of them is already married to someone else.  Although
illegal sex-workers can be found inside Burma, it should not be
interpreted t hat Burmese society openly accepts sex-industry.  No parent
or relative would be proud of a women for being a sex-worker.  Burmese
culture treats sex-workers as lower class human beings for as long as they
are earning their living from that job. 

Thus, the question as to why Burmese women willingly opt for the job of a
sex-worker in Thailand, needs to be raised.  The answer appears to be that
the situation inside their country is forcing Burmese women into the sex
trade. Few Burmese sex-workers wi ll tell anybody when they go back to
their homes about the kind of work that they have done in Thailand. 
Almost every Burmese woman would fear others knowing that they were
sex-workers.  For those women who have been forced into sexual slavery,
the shame is worse, as the stigma is the same whether they were forced
into the trade or entered it voluntarily.  There is usually no way for the
Burmese to tell whether a woman entered the trade by choice or was forced. 
Although this report uses the term "sex-wo rkers by choice," their choice
has not been truly voluntary, nor informed, but is a response to the
extreme difficulties engendered by the events in their country. 


Judging from the answers given in interviews concerning the daily life of
the sex-workers, it is highly doubtful that these women are happy with
this job.  It is very hard for the sex-workers to get a regular income
from the brothel owners, in accordance with how many men they have served. 
Even though sex-workers who have chosen to do the job expect problems,
they often find the difficulties greater than anticipated.  In some
establishments, the sex-workers are often treated in extremely inhumane
ways b y drunk customers, for example, they may be burned with cigarettes,
if they refuse to do something requested by the man during sexual
intercourse.  Sex-workers also have little power to force their sexual
counterparts to use condoms, and therefore have no power to protect
themselves from customers they believe, or know, are infected with AIDS. 

Initially, many sex-workers think the job will be easy, and involves only
sleeping with men for money.  However, they soon find it is not easy to
get the money they have earned.  Unless otherwise arranged, sex-workers
are not allowed to stay with a man in the bedroom for more than 30
minutes, as it is considered enough time for one act of sexual
intercourse. According to this system, there is no way for sex-workers to
get earn extra money from their job by sleeping with one customer more
than one time. 


Generally, two different standards of brothel can be found in Thailand. 
Higher class brothels are in the cities, and the lower class brothels are
mainly in the border towns, and down-market parts of cities.  Burmese
women work mainly in the lower-class b rothels.  The treatment of
sex-workers in the lower class brothels is worse than that in higher class
brothels.  However, Burmese sex workers have no choice but to work for
such establishments because they can not speak or behave as upper-class
Thais.  Al though these brothels offer protection and treatment for
venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy, it is often inappropriate and

Unfortunately they can seldom get a proper income from their work because
the income depends on the whims of the brothel owners, not on a law or
contract.  Interviews with many Burmese sex-workers, as well as those of
other nationalities working in Thaila nd, make it clear that it is almost
impossible for the sex-workers to speak with the brothel owners about
their rightful income.  No Burmese sex-worker can get the full amount of
her rightful income because the brothel owners do not feel obliged to give
t hem more than a "Burmese" (i.e. low) rate of income.  The working
conditions of the sex-workers are generally extremely bad in lower class
brothels.  The sex-workers also find serving the men a worse experience
than they expected as most of their customer s are drunk and violent.  The
lack of access to health care and education, and the inability of Burmese
women to redress the situation of their illegal status in Thailand safely,
proves a definite need for the setting up of some kind of union which can
pr otect the rights of these women. 


As with all other jobs, experience is important for every sex-worker in
order to become familiar with the job.  Sex-workers tend to learn
everything in their first brothel.  When a woman becomes a sex-worker in a
brothel, whether by force or by choice, sh e is taught by the agent or the
owner to change her character and life style, for example, she has to
learn to dress appropriately and to use make up in order to appear sexy
and attractive to men.  For a Burmese woman, it is also necessary to learn
how to pretend to be a Thai woman, in order to avoid unnecessary problems
such as inquiries by Thai officials.  This is why sex-tourists cannot
easily know what is the nationality of the sex-worker they are having
sexual intercourse with.  The first brothel is like a 'primary school' for
every sex-worker to get used to the job.  It is interesting that the
'primary school' never teaches anything about the women's few rights to
sex-workers, most of whom lack a basic education, but only educate women
in ways to at tract men. 


Despite the fact that Thailand prohibits the sex-industry business, none
of the country's successive governments have been able to enforce the law. 
There have simply been periodic crackdowns on the child sex-industry, and
some temporary restrictions plac ed upon the operators of brothels. 
Following these crackdowns, brothels have merely changed their surface
appearance, and have continued to function as before.  Some put up the
thinly veiled facade of being karaoke restaurants, tea shops, pubs, etc.,
in order to avoid the government's prohibition.  The sex-workers have to
pose as waitresses in the newly opened restaurants, tea shops, and pubs. 
This has happened in Ranong, Mae Sod, Mae Sai, Chiang Mai, Tak, and many
other cities.  Such establishments sti ll have to maintain connections
with local Thai officials who still ask for bribe money to allow illegal
Burmese women to work there.  As usual, when the government prohibits
something, it appears in another form in another place.  In the country of
Thail and, well known as a land of corruption, central government policy
simply becomes an excuse for local Thai officials to ask for 'protection
money' to guard the security of unlawful businesses. 


As reported above, many Burmese women opt for this job willingly as they
believe that it is easier to earn money in the sex-industry than in other
jobs.  It is indeed true that the rate of income from the sex-industry is
much higher than for any other job for the women of the Thailand's
neighboring countries, especially from Burma.  However, many factors
combine to deprive these women of their rightful incomes.  The brothel
owners consistently exploit their sex workers.  They always use tactics to
avoid g iving the full payment for their services to the sex-workers.  The
brothel owners always find reasons to cut the real income of the
sex-workers, in the form of fines, for example, for taking too long with
one customer. Most sex-workers are not allowed to shop freely in the
market or in town, instead the owners do so for them, and often charge at
least double the real price.  When the sex-workers ask for health care,
the owners usually charge more than the real cost.  The main reason given
for cutting the income of the sex-workers is the so-called 'protection
money' paid to the local Thai officials.  The sex-workers are usually
advised to keep their income in "safekeeping" with the owners, and often
they know of, or have, no alternative ways to keep their money safely. 
When the total amount becomes big, there will be another reason for
refusing to give money to the sex-workers.  Often the sex-workers resort
to asking their parents to come and try and get a lump sum from the
brothel owners.  The women usua lly end up with less income than they had
expected or worked hard for. At the end of the day, the balance in the
accounts of Burmese sex-workers is not much more than zero.  Thus, for
whose benefit are the sex-workers really selling their bodies? 

Every investment is made for profit or interest.  The women who have
invest their bodies in the sex industry are aiming at getting benefits. 
However, not only does their financial account balance usually end up at
zero, but they also suffer losses in the ir investment of the worst
possible kind - by contracting the HIV virus.  Many reliable sources
report that the rate of the spread of HIV in Burma right now is faster
than in some countries in Africa.  According to the Public Health Research
Centers in th e border cities of Thailand such as Mae Sai, Mae Sod, and
Ranong, about 80 percent of Burmese sex-workers tested in the cities along
the border are HIV positive.  While Thailand is implementing a public
health plan to control the spread of AIDS and the HI V, Burma does very
little to control AIDS and HIV which is brought into the country through
infected men and spread by them and the sex-workers.  In Thailand, brothel
owners seldom provide AIDS education to the sex-workers.  The owners
rarely ask the men who have sex with the women to use condoms, instead,
the brothels pretend that no sex-workers working there are HIV infected. 
As a result, the spread of HIV among Burmese sex-workers, and in Burma as
a whole, has accelerated.  Thus, the Burmese women no t only gain no
financial benefits or peace of mind from their work, but also lose their
initial investment capital.  Again, who really gains when the sex-workers
sell their bodies? 


As reported earlier, the main reason for Burmese women coming to Thailand
is to escape from the terrible economic situation in the country, and
government's ongoing human rights abuses against women.  Usually they
choose jobs other than that of the sex-in dustry, but end up as sex
workers, often unwillingly, in order to survive and support their parents. 
While most of the Burmese face many difficulties, a few sex-workers who
are experienced can save some money.  Some of them begin to make a profit
by usin g their experience to become owners of brothels back in Burma. 
For those who have managed to succeed at the trade, after a while their
original reason for becoming a sex-worker changes.  They move beyond
thinking merely about survival and instead begin to consider ways to earn
larger amounts of money.  There have been some Burmese sex-workers who
returned to own brothels in Burma.  There are many brothels in Tachilek, a
Burmese border town which lies on one of trafficking routes, which serve
as an examp le of this. 

These Burmese brothel owners, work closely with Thai brothel owners and/or
agents, in order to export Burmese women not only to Thailand, but also to
some rich countries such as Japan.  There have been examples of Burmese
women being exported to Japan wit h the assistance of Burmese and Thai
brothels, in cooperation with each other.  In an interview with a Burmese
sex-worker, IMAGES ASIA was told that she would go back to Burma soon and
open a brothel of her own.  With the current lack of job opportunities in
Burma, the few sex-workers who are successful, are therefore choosing the
only lucrative trade open to them upon their return. 


The Burmese women who have learnt about the sex-industry business in
Thailand, and who have returned home to start up their own brothels, are
now waiting for the mass arrival of tourists in the government-sponsored
tourism campaign dubbed "Visit Myanmar Y ear 1996".  It should not be
forgotten that "Visit Thailand Year 1987" was one of the major causes for
of the boom in the sex-industry in Thailand. 


When human rights organizations repeatedly report the human rights abuses
against sex workers, committed by those who earn profit from the sex
trade, the countries directly and indirectly concerned try to enforce some
laws and regulations in order to prot ect the sex workers, and to appease
their critics.  A number of western countries have now introduced
legislation to prevent their citizens from having sex with children during
tours to Thailand.  One Swedish man was punished by his government in the
midd le of this year for having sexual relations with a child in Pattaya. 
The Thai government has also attempted to protect sex workers and child
sex-workers by passing rules and laws.  As Thailand is playing such an
important role in the trafficking of women , and in the sex-industry in
the region, the continued efforts of the Thai government are crucial. 
While some Thai officials remain corrupt, another obstacle to a change for
the better is that government policies relating to trafficking and
sex-industry continue to be ineffective. 

As this report has focused on Burmese women sex-workers, the
recommendations will be concerned mainly with Burma.  Most of the Burmese
women in Thailand are economic refugees as reported above, who decided to
be sex workers because other alternatives were not available to them for
their survival.  The Burmese women have therefore exchanged their sexual
dignity for money, in defiance of their own traditions and feelings.  If
other alternatives were available for them, it is highly likely that most
of these women would not be sex workers.  Despite the fact that the
Burmese government is attempting to change to a market economy, like other
countries in the region, economic conditions have not improved for the
vast majority of the people.  After the State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC) took power in 1988, the number of Burmese leaving the
country has increased, and rice prices are at an all time high.  These
facts signal that the economic problems in the country are still severe,
and the military g overnment's oppression continues unabated. 

A solution for the situation of Burmese women sex workers in Thailand can
only be found after two major problems have been solved, which are
directly forcing women into the sex industry.  , These are: 

1. The Burmese government must stop its oppression of the people, and
recognize and respect the fundamental human rights of every citizen. 

2. The Burmese government must address and correct its mismanagement of
the economy, and create more employment opportunities for women.