[Paleopsych] Prospect: (UK) Learning the Thai sex trade

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Learning the Thai sex trade
    [No. 110 / May 2005]

    Thailand generates fantasies, both for tourists in search of sex and
    for aid workers peddling lurid tales of trafficking. The tsunami
    created more false horror stories. What are the facts of the trade?

Alex Renton

    Alex Renton is a contributing editor of "Prospect"
    January was ugly in our part of Bangkok. We live near Soi Nana, off
    Sukhumvit Road, a famous tourist site catering for a specific sort of
    visitor: middle-aged western men. They come to Nana for one reason--to
    have sex cheaply. November to January is high season in Thailand for
    holidaymakers from northern nations, and the bars and pavements of
    Nana are packed with hundreds of people buying and selling sex.
    January was busier than ever this year. It took a struggle every
    evening to get through the ranks of skinny Thai women and the pale men
    in shorts picking them over.
    It was the tsunami, of course. Patong beach, one of the worst hit
    parts of Phuket island, is among Thailand's best known destinations
    for tourists seeking sex. So the men transferred their holidays to
    Bangkok. Happily for them, there was a drought in northeastern
    Thailand at the end of 2004. The poor rice crop that resulted sent
    more young girls than usual down from their impoverished villages on
    the plains of Isaan to harvest the tourists in the big city. This
    seasonal migration goes back, historians of the sex trade will tell
    you, to the Vietnam war and the establishment of Thailand as a brothel
    for American GIs on leave. Prostitution for foreign visitors developed
    into a major industry, although official Thailand shrouds its economic
    and social significance in misinformation and a variety of interesting
    For a start, no one knows how many foreigners come to Thailand every
    year to buy sex. Many people have opinions on the matter--not least
    Thailand's government, which understandably resists the label "brothel
    of the world." It has threatened to expel journalists who impugn the
    honour of Thai womenfolk, and forced Longman's dictionary to change
    its 1993 edition, the entry for Bangkok which included the line "a
    place where there are a lot of prostitutes." Thailand, in its turn,
    has been considerably abused by statisticians and NGOs. Claims that
    there are 2m or more prostitutes in the population of 64m, as was once
    stated in a Time cover story, are absurd. This much-quoted figure was
    drawn from the statistics of the Coalition Against Trafficking in
    Women, an international NGO. If true, it would mean that one in four
    Thai women between the ages of 15 and 29 in Thailand was a prostitute.
    Another anti-trafficking organisation, Ecpat (End Child Prostitution,
    Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes),
    claimed in the mid-1990s that there were up to 800,000 Thai child
    prostitutes--a lunatic figure that still circulates in the US state
    The trade in humans across the borders of southeast Asia is a real and
    ugly story, but it continues to throw up incredible
    statistics--perhaps because it is an issue that generates large
    amounts of aid dollars. There are 21 UN agencies and NGOs based in
    Bangkok which concern themselves with trafficking. The Boxing day
    tsunami predictably generated a trafficking angle. Within a few days,
    aid agencies led by Unicef were issuing grim warnings of orphans being
    sold for adoption or the sex trade. The western media got particularly
    excited by the picture of an angelic Nordic child, supposedly stolen
    from a Thai hospital. This proved baseless, and there has yet to
    emerge a single credible example of a tsunami child, blond or brown,
    being sold. But the story has flourished in the global consciousness,
    leaving the few facts from which it seeded far behind.
    The sex industry in Thailand generates fantasies. There are the
    fantasies of pliant girls which draw the western sex tourists, and
    then there are the fantasies of lurid exploitation which draw the
    western moralisers and NGOs. But what is the actual scale of
    prostitution in Thailand? And how serious is the trafficking problem?
    Selling sex has been illegal in the kingdom since 1960, but Longman's
    was right--there are a lot of prostitutes. Ask most sensible analysts
    in Thailand and you will be told that the number of women employed in
    prostitution, though a long way short of 2m, is between 150,000 and
    220,000 (male prostitutes are a tiny fraction of that). You will also
    hear that western sex tourism is not economically significant, that
    most prostitution in Thailand is for local men, and that most of the
    people who do come from abroad for sex are Asian. There is some truth
    in this. Sixty per cent of Thailand's 10m visitors in 2003 were from
    elsewhere in east Asia, and certainly the brothel-lined towns on
    Thailand's Malaysian border, and the entire streets in Bangkok that
    are devoted to sex clubs for "Japanese only," are evidence of the sex
    trade designed for the region.
    But the proof is there--in Pattaya, in Phuket and on my own street in
    Bangkok--that huge numbers of non-Asian visitors buy sex in Thailand.
    But how many? Sex tourism is notoriously difficult to measure. How can
    you ask at immigration if tourists have arrived in Thailand primarily
    for the prostitution? How do you know if a man on a business trip is
    likely to visit a sex venue with his Thai colleagues? Yet while the
    government, and the tourist and aviation industries, resist attempts
    to measure the significance of the sex trade, there is one way to
    gauge the extent of sex tourism, even if in fairly crude terms. A look
    at the Thai immigration department's statistics, culled from the cards
    foreigners must fill in on entry, reveals an interesting discrepancy:
    60 per cent of visitors are male and only 40 per cent female. The gap
    grows when you look at arrivals from the rich countries who come to
    Thailand on holiday in large numbers--the US, Japan, Britain, France.
    For these places, nearly two males arrived for every female in 2003.
    More British citizens visit Thailand than those of any other non-Asian
    country. In 2003 (the last year for which full figures are available)
    some 545,000 British residents arrived on visits. If you remove the
    children, and the British citizens visiting for business or reasons
    other than a holiday, you arrive at about 489,000--314,000 men and
    175,000 women. That is 139,000 more British men than women coming to
    Thailand for a holiday--a gap of 28 per cent. The French gender
    disparity--60,500 more men than women--is 32 per cent, about the same
    as that of visitors from the US. The Japanese, at 35 per cent, is the
    highest--over 300,000 more men. If you take Europe as a whole (though
    there are some countries, like Finland and Sweden, with virtually no
    disparity) the gap is 25 per cent--494,000 more men than women.
    A look at the major rich-nation visitors--those from the US,
    Australia, Europe and Japan--shows that 952,000 more men than women
    visited Thailand on holiday in 2003, a disparity of 28 per cent. (The
    2004 statistics, not yet complete, will show a slight narrowing of
    this gap, but a leap of overall numbers of around 20 per cent.) This
    pattern is unique among major tourist destinations. Take, for example,
    the Caribbean, another popular tropical destination for economy
    tourism. Here, the disparity runs at 2 or 3 per cent--the only country
    with a significant gap in favour of men, nearly 11 per cent, is Cuba,
    the Caribbean country most notorious for sex tourism.
    Do nearly a million men from the rich world come to Thailand to buy
    sex every year? The proposition deserves challenge. Men are capable of
    holidaying for reasons other than fornication with strangers. There is
    golf, after all. I asked Sasithara Pichaichannarong, director general
    of the Thai government's office of tourism development, how she
    accounted for the discrepancy. "Businessmen!" she said promptly.
    "They're counted as tourists in the statistics." But I had factored
    them out--and in any case, only 31,000 Britons stated business rather
    than holiday as the purpose of their visit in 2003, less than 6 per
    cent of the total. So did sex explain the extra 950,000 men that
    arrive from wealthy countries? "Probably," she said. "But sex tourism
    exists everywhere, not just in Thailand." Not in such numbers,
    however. These extra men represent 10 per cent of all international
    arrivals in Thailand.
    So what are these men doing in Thailand? I took the problem to John
    Koldowski, managing director for strategic intelligence at the
    Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association. He was understandably
    cagey: Pata is funded by government, airlines and the hotel industry.
    But yes, he confirmed, the gender discrepancy is unusual for the
    global tourist destinations. So these extra men are coming here for
    sex? "It's that, or the golf," said Koldowski.
    And why so many Brits? He thought that the backpacker tourists might
    account for the gap--young British males, following the traditional
    trail through southeast Asia to see mates or relatives in Australasia.
    But the average British arrival is aged 40, I pointed out.
    "Backpacking is a state of mind, not an age thing," pronounced
    Koldowski. That's an advertising slogan, not an explanation, I said.
    He became tetchy. "Look, if you are really researching the social
    factors of this, you should consider if men might come here because
    they're fed up with the ball-breaking females they have to deal with
    at home. Maybe they want to meet the sort of gentle, beautiful,
    kind-hearted women they'll find here." This seemed to answer my
    question. The men are here for sex and, of course, golf. Or both.
    Female golf caddies who double as prostitutes are, anecdotally, one of
    the special features of the courses of Thailand.
    Sex tourism is a significant part of Thailand's economy. Tourism
    overall has been the country's major foreign currency earner since
    1982. In 2003, international tourism alone accounted for 309.26bn baht
    (£4.56bn) in receipts--about 6 per cent of GDP--ranking Thailand 15th
    in the world. That year, the extra adult male holidaymakers from
    around the world probably generated almost £1bn--over 1 per cent of
    Thailand's GDP.
    But prostitution in Thailand is much bigger than just the trade for
    tourists. There is no official measurement of the economics, but the
    clues are there. Many Thai men are habitual users of prostitutes, and
    the trade, while illegal, carries less stigma than in most countries
    and is acknowledged by the government as a source of revenue. In
    January, the Thai excise department announced that it was going to
    seek a larger take in the so-called "sin tax" from massage parlours, a
    common brothel front. But Thai tax collection is notoriously
    inefficient. A better indicator of the money around in the
    prostitution business came last year from Chuwit Kamolvisit, who was
    employing 2,000 prostitutes in six luxury massage parlours in Bangkok
    (which he liked to refer to as "semen collection centres"). Chuwit,
    the "Tub Tycoon," is an amusing rogue--"very un-Thai," they say
    here--who in February 2005 became an opposition member of parliament
    with an anti-corruption agenda. During his campaign he opened his
    books to the press, revealing to a largely unsurprised nation that his
    monthly bill for bribes and payoffs to the Bangkok authorities came to
    £160,000. Separately, Thailand's National Economic and Social Advisory
    Council (Nesac) said that massage parlour owners pay £62m a year in
    police bribes. The income directly generated by prostitution was
    estimated at 100bn baht (£1.5bn) by the respected Thai economist Pasuk
    Phongpaichit in a 1998 study. This is about a third of the value of
    the agriculture sector, which employs more people than any other in
    Westerners form an important--albeit not the major--part of this
    economic picture. A few have settled here because of it, calling
    themselves "sexpatriates." In towns like Pattaya on the Gulf of
    Thailand, on Phuket island and in the sex trade districts of Bangkok,
    they run bars, hotels and brothels, mediating the transactions between
    male tourists and Thai women. They are vocal on websites and in local
    publishing ventures, churning out guides for sex tourists. Some of
    these men see themselves as exiles, refugees from the "feminazis" who
    are crushing the spirit of the western male. Here, the old order of
    the sexes still reigns. Women know their place, they wash your feet
    before they have sex with you, they say thank you and help you in the
    shower afterwards. And, of course, westerners' savings and pensions go
    a long way. Beer is a dollar a bottle, and a woman for the night
    available for £10 or less. It's the "last place you can be a white
    man," says one bar-owning sexpat on his website.
    Their guidebooks picture a world of grasping, stupid peasant girls,
    known as "LBFMs" (little brown fucking machines), out to entrap and
    rip off the honest, randy male visitor, who must treat them firmly and
    be sure to stamp out any nonsense for the sake of the next bloke who
    comes along. Books like Sex, Lies & Bar Girls are available in
    mainstream shops, including at Bangkok airport. They are full of
    robust advice on "scrogging" as many Thai women in as short a time and
    for as little money as possible.
    One of the self-justifications put forward by the sexpats is that the
    business makes everyone happy--the exploitation is two-way. It is not
    like normal prostitution, you hear. All the girls are smiling! ("All
    smile, all the time!" is an official tourism slogan). But you don't
    have to be a feminazi to see that the power relationship is grossly
    unbalanced. The real choices lie with the man with the wallet.
    The famous Thai smile hides a lot. The women of rural Thailand who
    descend on the tourist areas are driven by poverty. Around a third of
    the Thai population lives on less than $2 a day; in the agricultural
    northeast, where farmers are beset by drought and collapsing prices
    (chiefly because of the dropping of trade barriers with China), one in
    six people lives on less than $1 a day. A high proportion of
    prostitutes--over 60 per cent, according to some surveys--have left
    children at home in the countryside. In traditional Thai society, a
    girl's first duty is the support of her family. Seventy-five per cent
    of prostitutes, according to one study, entered the trade after the
    failure of a relationship--"damaged goods" in a society that still
    puts a high premium on female virginity. Another common reason given
    for entering prostitution is the pressure of family debts.
    And the gains to be had are fabulous. The price of sex from a street
    prostitute in Nana starts at perhaps 500 baht, a little over £7. That
    is a fortnight's living costs in the countryside, or half a week's
    salary for a Thai police constable. There is little doubt that the sex
    trade is vital to the economy of the poor northeast, which is another
    of the well-rehearsed justifications of the sexpats. Tales of bar
    girls who retire rich and happy to their home villages--some of them
    with a farang (foreign) husband--are many, and there is no social
    disgrace attached. "The land a girl child ploughs lies between her
    legs," goes a saying from rural Thailand. But some women are broken in
    the process, and on my street, occasionally, you can see the damage
    that results.
    Still, there is a grain of truth in the sexpat argument. Soi Nana is
    not like the grim red light districts of London or New York, with
    their backdrop of organised crime, violence, and drug use. The only
    fight I have seen on Nana was between drunken Englishmen. Amphetamines
    are widely used by the prostitutes, it is said, but not heroin. I have
    spotted one used syringe in the gutter in our four years here: there
    was worse to be seen nightly on the crack-infected street in west
    London where we used to live. Most women soliciting rich-world
    foreigners are relatively free agents. Their worst affliction appears
    to be the corrupt Bangkok police. In Thailand, the industry is not
    generally pimp-driven and, although technically illegal, its openness
    undoubtedly provides some protection for women. The sex tourist is
    more likely to visit a bar or a massage parlour than a traditional
    "closed" brothel (these appear to be more common for the domestic sex
    trade). NGOs say that condom use is close to 100 per cent, and HIV
    infection has been in decline in Thailand for a decade.
    My family and I have become blasé about the street over the four years
    since we rented a house off Nana. We used to stare, transfixed by the
    grotesque Beauty and the Beast scenes: slender girls being slobbered
    over by beery skinheads, the doddery grandfathers being escorted to
    hotels by tiny teenagers. But you come to realise these objections are
    chiefly aesthetic. The tourists, as opposed to the sexpats, are not so
    bad--often ignorant, yes, but lonely and innocent too. We have only
    once on our street seen a girl who was plainly underage. She was being
    bundled into a car by two western men--we tried to get the police to
    stop the vehicle but they were not interested. (Of the 21 agencies and
    NGOs working from Bangkok on the trafficking problem, not one has
    managed to set up a 24-hour hotline where foreign visitors can report
    it actually happening.)
    On my street you get snapshots of sadness--the look of a woman as she
    turns her face from her elderly male escort, her smile slipping to
    reveal what she is really thinking; the desperate patience of the
    older women, not pretty enough any longer to be attached to a bar, who
    must patiently wait in line under the glaring lights of the Nana Hotel
    sign. These can make you feel like crying for humanity, but,
    rationally, you must think, this is what globalised tourism and the
    laws of supply and demand will produce. What specifically should we
    object to? To stamp out the sex trade would cause enormous harm in a
    country that fails abjectly, despite its relative wealth, to provide
    for its poor. After four years, I find that the only aspect that can
    get me really heated about sex tourism in Thailand is the hypocrisy,
    from both the trade's apologists and its enemies.
    There is another sex-related industry in Bangkok--run by those who
    survey and lobby, preach and analyse and argue endlessly with each
    other about how to stop or curb prostitution and human trafficking.
    There is a harvest here, too, for cultural anthropologists and social
    historians. The books on why people have sex in Thailand line the
    bookshop shelves next to those on how to have sex in Thailand. There
    are socioeconomists analysing the "incomplete dialectic between
    tourist and prostitute"; anthropologists on the Foucaultian
    relationship between a Thai prostitute and her body; social historians
    on the growth of the myth of the exotic Orient, as promulgated by
    Puccini, Gauguin or the young British men who ran the trading posts of
    the East India Company. There are, as Pasuk Phongpaichit points out,
    many people beyond the prostitutes themselves who make a living on the
    back of Thailand's sex trade.
    And there is one aspect about which everyone agrees something must be
    done: "trafficking," the sale of women and children into the sex
    trade. Worrying about trafficking is another business, employing its
    own community of expats in Bangkok, which is the southeast Asian hub
    for many international NGOs. Thirteen UN agencies and eight
    international NGOs are involved in anti-trafficking work, so many that
    a further UN body (Uniap, the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on
    Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region) was established in
    2000, employing 18 people, to co-ordinate them and all the
    international NGOs (Save the Children, Oxfam and so on) which run
    programmes or policies on trafficking in the six countries through
    which the Mekong river flows.
    Donors--particularly the US and British governments--throw millions of
    dollars at trafficking every year. Spending on the issue has shot up
    during the Bush administration--it was $50m in 2003--for which the
    trafficking of women and children for sex is an ideal target for
    foreign aid. "It fits the demands of an ideological morality that says
    that in essence all sex issues should be dealt with by abstinence. And
    it's about defenceless kids and teenagers," said one former Unicef
    worker. Another who was involved in the agency's anti-trafficking
    programmes in east Asia told me that within Unicef they are seen as "a
    great collecting bucket," a reliable method of raising funds that can
    then be spent on less donor-thrilling projects, like education or
    Thus hardly a fortnight in Bangkok goes by without another seminar,
    conference or children's forum, organised by Uniap or others. In
    November, I dropped in on the "post-Yokohama mid-term review of the
    east Asia and Pacific regional commitment and action plan against
    commercial sexual exploitation of children," held by Unescap (UN
    Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific), Unicef and
    Ecpat. This three-day meeting, attended by delegates from more than 20
    countries, was to report on what had happened since the last such
    meeting three years earlier in Yokohama. The only concrete
    development, it seemed, was the signing in Burma a month earlier by
    ministers from Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam of a
    "memorandum of understanding to co-ordinate action to prevent
    trafficking." This was being hailed as a big achievement. But it was
    also noted that "a lack of reliable data remains a major hindrance to
    the implementation of well-targeted and effective measures to stop the
    commercial sexual exploitation of children."
    That is an understatement. Everyone in the anti-trafficking industry
    is painfully aware that there is no real data at all. There are
    gruesome anecdotes and a few unimpressive figures for arrest and
    prosecution, but hard facts do not exist. You are told that each year
    many Thai women are sold into the sex trade in Japan, that they arrive
    thinking they are going to work as nannies or waitresses and find
    themselves saddled with "debts" of $25,000-45,000 and forced to work
    them off by yakuza gangsters in brothels known as "black jails." Such
    was the report of human rights lobbyist Kinsey Dinan, published by the
    Harvard Asia Centre in 2002. But that article, like so many others,
    made no attempt to attach numbers to the stories. Dinan's
    "several-year long research project" with Human Rights Watch merely
    says she "found that thousands of women from Thailand were being
    trafficked into... Japan each year." That is it. The truth is there
    are no useful statistics on this issue in Japan, other than some on
    the female visa overstayers (10,000 from Thailand in 2001). But the
    NGO lobbyists need better than that to tickle the donors. There are
    much more frightening ones around, and they are widely quoted:
    Unicef's estimate, for example, that 1.2m children (meaning under-18
    year olds) are trafficked every year, a third of them in Asia.
    At a recent anti-trafficking meeting of international NGOs, I met a
    woman from Oxfam India who told the meeting that in Delhi alone
    child-trafficking was a business worth $1m a day. No one raised an
    eyebrow. Another agency claims the child sex trade has a $7bn annual
    turnover in Asia (a figure the US state department gives as the global
    value of the human trafficking trade). These numbers are endlessly
    parroted by lobbyists and journalists, and never, it seems,
    challenged. The trade in humans is an area where anyone seems pretty
    much able to say anything. David Feingold, international co-ordinator
    on HIV and trafficking for Unesco, analyses the statistics on these
    issues, but even he has not been able to get Unicef to explain its
    figure of 1.2m children. "Trafficking is a dangerous word," Feingold
    says. "It stops the brain working."
    If you ask the agencies how they get these figures, you get a weary
    response: "Why are you journalists so obsessed with statistics?" At
    the post-Yokohama mid-term review, I put the question to Anupama Rao
    Singh, regional director of Unicef for east Asia. She replied that she
    understood the journalistic "compulsion" for figures, but added, "I
    must make one point: the trafficking of children for sexual
    exploitation is one of the worst and most abhorrent abuses, one that
    cannot be condoned, irrespective of the numbers!" For this, she earned
    a cheer from her colleagues. Question the figures and you will be told
    you are helping the exploiters. A researcher I know who has worked in
    east Europe and west Africa on trafficking surveys for Unicef and Save
    the Children says that the problem lies in the fact that the data
    everyone wants are near impossible to come by. "It's not like
    measuring HIV infections, or seeing if children have access to safe
    drinking water. How do you extrapolate from the anecdotes? How do you
    separate a woman whose uncle gave her a lift to the big city to help
    her find work from a woman whose uncle paid her mother money to be
    allowed to put her to work?" But the commissioners of reports demand
    hard statistics. "The pressure to fudge them is enormous."
    Feingold has a favourite example: the commonly used figure of 5-7,000
    girls trafficked each year from Nepal to India. "It dates from a 1986
    NGOs' seminar, when it was, I gather, a wild guess, and it was
    published in the Times of India in 1989. It has been in use ever
    since." After we met, I searched for the terms "5,000-7,000 Nepali
    girls" in Google and got 110 results, most of them relevant and
    appearing in documents by eminent organisations, including the World
    Bank and USAid. The most recent references to this 19-year-old "wild
    guess" were dated February 2005, and appeared in a Unicef paper and on
    the website of the Catholic aid agency APHD.
    Bad statistics have a habit of reproducing and mutating. "The US
    government," says Feingold, "recently revised its figure of 700,000-2m
    people trafficked worldwide--a figure which no one could possibly
    know. On the state department website, this is now down to
    600-800,000. Then they say that 80 per cent of these are female and 50
    per cent minors. How could anyone possibly know that? I've been given
    a private explanation of their methodology and it's ludicrous."
    I asked Anne Horsley for statistics. She is project co-ordinator for
    the International Organisation for Migration, working on "long-term
    recovery and reintegration assistance to trafficked women and
    children." Based in Phnom Penh, Horsley seemed more hands-on than most
    trafficking lobbyists. Cambodia to Thailand is meant to be a big
    export route for women and children. There is migrant labour going,
    legally and illegally, across these borders in the hundreds of
    thousands. Horsley, though, was also reluctant to be specific. Her
    rehabilitation project dealt with "a few hundred" Cambodian children
    each year, repatriated from Thailand. Some 25 per cent had had sexual
    experience, and two per cent said they had been involved in
    prostitution. If "a few hundred" were, say, 400, then 2 per cent would
    amount to eight under-18 year olds.
    Shortly after the tsunami, Unicef started raising the spectre of
    orphans from the disaster being preyed upon and sold for sex, quoting
    "reports" of this having already happened. This was seized on by other
    agencies, and doubtless brought more money into appeal funds that
    were, as some organisations will admit, already subscribed beyond the
    organisations' ability to spend the cash. (Privately, the agencies are
    staggered at the success of their appeals. One international NGO says
    it will take eight years to spend the money donated in the first month
    after the wave hit.) No one at Unicef has come up with a credible
    example of a tsunami orphan being sold for sex--despite journalists'
    repeated requests. A British aid agency worker returning from the
    devastation in Aceh said to me: "Well, I heard that only one case of
    that actually having happened has been proved. But the good thing
    about that story is that it made the Indonesians wake up to the fact
    that there could be a problem, and that their people needed training
    to look out for it."
    The statistics are seductive: a powerful tool for raising money, but
    also, as in Aceh, for embarrassing complacent governments whose women
    and children are demonstrably vulnerable. Some shocking stats and
    opprobrium in the media have got the Thai government to beef up its
    laws and policing, and in Thailand, arrests on trafficking or child
    abuse charges have risen a little. In May 2004, Thailand's autocratic
    prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced a "war on trafficking and
    prostitution," shortly after the International Labour Organisation
    (ILO) announced that 200-300,000 children were trafficked for sex into
    Thailand annually (though it is hard to see how they would fit into an
    existing population of 200,000 prostitutes), and shortly before the US
    state department released a report putting Thailand on its "watch
    list" of countries not working adequately to prevent human
    trafficking. Special police squads now exist to track the trafficking
    gangs, which are said to number about 30 in Thailand, and to have
    links to 70 or 80 in other countries; and in April 2005 a deputy prime
    minister was put in charge of a new human trafficking control board.
    But arrests and prosecutions remain few. In December 2004, in a report
    on one of the special 36-man anti-trafficking squads now patrolling
    1,165km of the northern Thai-Burmese border, it was revealed that not
    a single arrest had been made, nor any victim rescued. In fact, in the
    first year of operation, on the entire Burmese border only four
    arrests had been made and four suspected trafficking victims freed.
    Many things can be deduced from this--not least the inefficiency of
    the Thai police. But a worrying question remains: how can you stop the
    trafficking of children for sex if you cannot find out where or how or
    in what numbers they are being trafficked?
    Some of the agencies are beginning to admit that bad numbers can
    undermine their credibility. Ecpat, the child prostitution agency,
    does impressive work at the "demand side," including the training of
    hotel staff in Thailand to report on customers who may be using
    underage prostitutes. Formerly one of the worst offenders with
    exaggerated numbers, Ecpat now bases its statistics on figures
    provided by national governmental bodies, which are likely to be
    underestimates. In 2003, the ILO started a $10m, five-year project to
    combat trafficking in Thailand and four neighbouring countries,
    largely funded by Britain's department for international development.
    Allan Dow, communications officer for the project, partially disowns
    that ILO figure of 200-300,000 children trafficked into the region.
    "We've stopped using numbers now. We know the problem is serious:
    there's no point coming up with unreliable statistics. Not having
    numbers doesn't mean we don't know what we're doing... but we have to
    admit that the current methodology for getting statistics doesn't
    Trafficking is a real problem and, though there is little prospect of
    it being measured accurately, circumstances suggest that it will grow.
    Tourism into southeast Asia is forecast to increase by 14 per cent a
    year. Even after the tsunami, 13m people are expected to visit
    Thailand during 2005, and the kingdom plans to push that to 20m by
    2008, which would make it the world's seventh most popular
    destination, just after Britain. And sex is demonstrably one of
    Thailand's major tourist attractions. What must concern those who,
    like me, take a liberal view of the sex trade is that underage
    prostitution is an inevitable part of it. Teenagers, research shows,
    are brought into the trade not principally because of the dedicated
    paedophiles we read so much about, but because youth is a valuable
    commodity. Men like to buy sex with young women: the young poor are
    the most easily obtained for them.
    A few in the anti-trafficking community admit they have to reassess
    their approach. Amid the self-congratulation of the post-Yokohama
    meeting, there was one note of caution sounded. Vitit Muntarbhorn, a
    law professor and former special rapporteur for the UN secretary
    general on child prostitution and trafficking, told the meeting:
    "We've focused a lot on supply issues. It's time we placed as much
    focus on demand." The professor is a Thai, but his own country is set,
    if anything, to increase the demand for prostitutes. "The Thai
    government is committed to quality tourism," said Sasithara
    Pichaichannarong of the office of tourism development, "and that
    includes being anti-sex tourism." She gave no details of exactly what
    the kingdom is doing to oppose sex tourism--though if you tried to set
    up a sex tourism business today you would probably be discouraged. It
    was not always thus. In the 1980s, overt sex tourism flourished with
    considerable government encouragement. Doctors were even asked to play
    down the threat of Aids in order not to put off tourists.
    Quietly, though, Thailand appears to have accepted its role as
    provider of sexual services to the rest of the planet. All that can be
    realistically asked is that it sets about doing it as cleanly and
    kindly as possible: that means tackling poverty in the rural north and
    corruption in the police force, as well as properly addressing the
    problem of the trafficked and the underage. The country would be aided
    in the latter by more honesty from the NGOs who have been given so
    many millions of aid dollars to tackle these problems.
    Travelling to Thailand for sex will continue. The brand is
    established. The beautiful young woman wrapped in silk with her demure
    but inviting smile is a feature of Thai travel posters across the
    world. The promise is of "happiness on earth"--the delights of
    paradise just a cheap flight away. Most of the traditional tourist
    attractions are disappearing. The country's beaches are overexploited,
    its forests shrinking and the islands poisoned by tourists' waste. But
    Thailand and its neighbours retain one renewable resource for the
    tourists that is not in danger of running out--the supply of poor,
    smiling women.

    End of the article

  Related Subjects

    [38]Southeast Asia (21),  [39]NGOs and charities (12),  and [40]Love
    and sex (36).
    [41]Southeast Asia,  [42]NGOs and charities,  and [43]Love and sex.
                                By this Author

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    [46]Alex Renton

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    [47]Press mess
    [48]Alex Renton


   44. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=6889#contactForm

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