Out of the frying pan into the sleaze

MIGRANT MALE SEX WORKERS: Hundreds, possibly thousands of young Burmese men are finding they've got nowhere else to go but Thailand's tough and sordid sex trade

The Bangkokpost (16-12-01) - SUNDAY PERSPECTIVE REPORTERS

When Myint Tha was quite young, he left his family in a tiny village in Burma's Shan State, and sneaked across the border at Thachilek to find a job in Chiang Rai's  Mae Sai district. He dreamed of a secure future in Thailand.

He said to himself: ``Many teenage Burmese, even girls, have taken a risk to make money in this land. So why shouldn't I a man... try it?'' At that time he was  still naive and didn't realise that many of those teenagers, and especially the girls, were not entering into a ``respectful type of job.''

Seven years later, at the age of 23, Myint Tha's innocence has long since fled. He now spends most nights at a gay bar in the tourist destination of Chiang Mai 300 kilometers from Thakhilek. He survives from week to week by having sex with older men.

Miss Duang (her Thai name), a 20- year-old Chinese Burmese celebrated her third anniversary of working nights at another Chiang Mai beer bar by supplying a customer with drinks and then going to bed with him, much like any other night.Miss Duang observed that in those three years she has seen an increase in the number of men willing to have sex with a stranger for money. ``Numerous boys are selling their bodies now.

There are many more than I saw back when I first came here,'' Miss Duang says.She says it is not surprising to hear about another new bar soon to be opened for gays. She adds that many Burmese boys go into prostitution. ``Besides Thais and Burmese, I hardly see male sex workers of other nationalities,'' she said.


A few months ago, a Perspective reporter met another young Burmese, Kyaw Tun,16, at a small newly opened nightclub with flashing decorations off  Ratchadapisek Road in the heart of Bangkok. He was practising dance steps along with dozens of young men several of whom were presumed to be non-Thai.

Kyaw Tun said, in Thai, ``A guy here approached me and offered me a job at this place .... which is soon to be opened as a nightclub for females.'' But it is understood by all but perhaps some of the dancers that the new dance arena is expected to receive homosexuals as their main customers not females as claimed.

``I didn't know any dancing steps before. They (the management) arranged for dancing instructors to teach me and the others,'' the boy said. ``Dancing is enjoyable, it isn't a hard job. I was promised three or four hundred baht a night. ``Working at a food garden (his earlier job in Samut Prakarn) earned me only half of that,'' the boy said.


Young people may enter into an occupation in a nightspot or club innocently looking for a way to make pretty good money in an enjoyable atmosphere, but entertainment venues are places where boys and girls are at high risk of being trapped into a vicious circle. ``Sooner or later, they are probably going to go to bed with strangers for money,'' a social worker said.

``Optimistically speaking, there are a few who are lucky enough to escape the unclean and unlawful practice. ''But it would be a great surprise to the social worker if Kyaw Tun didn't follow in the footsteps of Myint Tha. A public welfare official in Chiang Mai said ``Everyone knows about the many female prostitutes in our society. The trend of boys entering the sex industry in large numbers is an added headache.''


It is difficult to estimate the number of sex workers in Thailand. As prostitution is under the criminal code, sex workers try to keep a low profile. But just as it is common knowledge that the majority of service girls at bars, nightclubs and massage parlours are prostitutes, the welfare official said it is logical to assume that the majority of boys in a similar environment are also into prostitution.

A police source says that there are about 5,000 bars, nightclubs and massage or sauna venues across the country. There are over 300,000 male and female service personnel. The source says that there are also plenty of freelancers so the numbers must be higher. ``Some of them may work only once a month or when they are in need of money,'' he said.

Bangkok is believed to hold the largest number of male sex workers, followed by Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phuket, Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani, revealed the policeman. A social worker estimates that the total number of female and male prostitutes is perhaps as high as a million, working both from entertainment venues and as freelancers. He estimates that about 100,000 of these are Burmese of which a minority, some 5,000, are male.

``In fact, I would say that this figure is quite optimistically low,'' he said. ``But, definitely they are very young (20 years or under), uneducated, and from remote areas, especially from Shan State,'' he added.

Observers say that in the bars of the North, about 15 percent of male and female prostitutes are Burmese. Half of them may come from hilltribes. Social workers believe that Burmese or ethnic minorities within Burma outnumber all other non-Thai prostitutes combined. Most of the remaining come from Laos and Cambodia, with smaller numbers from Vietnam, Hong Kong, mainland China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and other nations.

Burma's economic, social and political situation is at the root of the youthful migration to the flesh dens of its more well-to-do neighbor. ``This problem can't be remedied unless the underlying causes are addressed,'' said one official.


Thailand has played a reluctant host to hordes of Burmese refugees for more than two decades. The Thai government has pursued a humanitarian policy through which refugees fleeing conflicts are afforded temporary asylum until the conflicts in the areas from which they fled is settled. The refugee population in the camps has expanded from little more than 20,000 in the mid-1980s to nearly 120,000 now. It is estimated that outside the camps, the number of Burmese illegals is over a million. Ninety per cent of these people are working illegally in industry or agriculture. The number of Burmese escaping what they see as a hopeless situation continues to grow.


Educated Burmese have a relatively easy road to start a decent new life in Thailand. For the less educated, and young, there is much less opportunity. The massage parlours and nightclubs offer a greater attraction than the long exhausting hours in the factories and the fields. ``That's the best chance for them to earn quick money and survive,'' a social worker says.

A major question is whether those who enter into prostitution are forced or do so of their own free will. When asked, one Burmese boy at a bar in Chiang Rai answered: ``I have never been forced to do it.'' But he implied that the hardships of his life forced him indirectly.

``I think that the boys who come to work here (at the bar) are forced by poverty but not physically. ''In his view, the beginnings of male prostitution are different than for many women.He thinks many girls are physically forced into prostitution. ``For men ? I'm quite sure it is rare.''

The initial introduction into the world of sex for hire for many male prostitutes is from their friends. They hear that they can earn extra money if they go to bed with gay people Thais or foreigners.


A Burmese sex worker, about 18 years old, said, ``I learned from many Burmese (who live in Thailand) where are the places to go to meet strangers and make money. I believe there is seduction by using our weak points.''

Another Burmese sex worker says, ``When I left Burma I didn't intend to do this work. This is very new in my mind. ``I didn't know anything about the sex industry. I never thought about it at all when I was in Burma.'' He says no one told him from the beginning when he left Burma that he should go into prostitution. After a while, the youth said, he began going to the pick-up places with his friends and finally let himself be pulled into the world of vice.


The story told over and over to Perspective was that most of the youths voluntarily entered the sex industry when they felt they had no other choices.

Said one Burmese boy in Chiang Mai: ``My friend and I came here with a small sum of money we had saved together. It was really only enough for transportation. `We couldn't get a job right away. Later we borrowed from Thai friends at an interest rate of 10 per cent a month. ``So, we tried every way possible to make money to pay back the debts. ``We worked on a farm for a while but didn't make enough to pay back the debt (of several thousand baht).''

He continued, ``In my case, I met another Thai who knows the (sex) industry. He helped me to get a job at a bar and later persuaded me and several others to earn extra money by sleeping with customers,'' he says. Since there seemed no other way to pay off the debts, he was persuaded much more easily.

Another boy said that the wages paid by the bars weren't enough to survive on if they didn't go with customers. ``The standard 50 baht a night (excluding food) isn't enough,'' he said. He also said that the bar owner takes a commission from his charge for his services in addition to the bar fee the customer pays him (the owner) for allowing the boy to leave the bar.

``If I go out with a client, the owner charges the client a 300 baht bar-fee, and collects another 1,000 baht for my services. ``When I collect my money from the bar owner the next day I get only 800 baht.''

Several of the Burmese boys told Perspective that most of the money they earn goes to paying debts and personal expenses. Only once in a while do they have much spending money in their pocket, if they are lucky enough to have more than a few clients in a week or get extra money from wealthy customers.

One boy said that his clients are mostly foreigners from Japan, Hong Kong, China or the West. ``I try to save and send money home to my family. They think I work in a factory.''


Illegal foreign workers, be they male or female, have more problems with the police, and are more easily abused because others can always threaten them with going to the police.

They face discrimination and abuse in many occupations because they are powerless to complain to authorities. And legal or not, they are allowed to work in some specified jobs, but not in many others.

One Burmese working at a bar in Chiang Rai says: ``If you are Burmese, you get lower income and you don't have many rights. We always fear being found by police and arrested.'' One sex worker related his problem with the police:

``There are Thais (also sex workers) who envy me because I have more customers and earn more than they do. ``Once they informed on me to the police and got me arrested,'' the boy claimed.

Another said, ``Sometimes the police arrest us just to get our money.'' Others talked about sexual assault and misconduct by clients. ``A (Burmese) friend of mine told me that when some clients found out that he was not Thai they abused him and made him do things of a sexual nature he didn't want to do.''

Bar owners also take advantage of their vulnerability; they are often paid very low wages, made to work very long hours and do all kinds of extra work at the bar like cleaning and maintenance. ``The bar owners can be cruel to us. They know they've got more power over Burmese boys,'' said another boy in Chiang Rai.

The abuse from so many corners drives them to seek protection from gangsters, or mafia, who sometimes have influence with the police. The ``protectors'' want something in return, of course.

``We have to entertain them with drink and food when we have money,'' said one young man caught between the police ``who enforce the laws'' and the mafia ``who take care of us.'' ``Thai workers don't have to go through this.''

Lack of knowledge of their adopted country is also a problem: ``We may learn something about Thailand, but it will never be enough. We're not natives. Some of us don't understand the language. I believe many of us face the same kinds of problems. We don't really know the system here."


When immigrant labourers work in a factory they have an average of four days holiday a month. But in the bars they may have a maximum two days off a month without pay. When there are public holidays, they don't have a chance to relax. Bars and nightclubs normally do a brisk business on those occasions. "We can't take leave on holidays. Thai New Year, Chinese New Year, that's when people go out to the bars for enjoyment. If we didn't work those times we could be blacklisted," said one boy.


Perspective learned that laws concerning the legal age of consensual sex and government guidelines on health checkups are mostly unenforced.

Many of the Burmese sex workers are as young as 13 or 14, well below the legal age for working in a place of entertainment in Thailand. They routinely tell customers they are over 18. "The bar owners tell us to say so. We don't have any ID cards like Thai people - so how can they (police or customers) know our real age?" said one.

Most of the youths aren't even aware of the laws against paedophilia. Several of the Burmese male prostitutes said they had never had regular health checkups. "People from the health ministry come around sometimes, but not regularly," one of them said. "People from the government don't come very near people like us (Thai or Burmese) prostitutes. "`They're high people. For them - to go near sex workers is very bad. They come from rich families. Why do they have to come down?"


Do these sex workers think that the sex trade (female and male) might become legal in Thailand soon?

The views of all were summed up by one who told Perspective "We don't think so. We don't think they would change the law." "No one would dare to talk about legalizing prostitution. I don't think there are people who are seriously paying attention to this issue."


Past midnight at a smoke-filled gay bar in Chiang Mai, young men in tight swimming suits perform an erotic dance on the stage. With smiles painted on their faces, the dancers await a hoped-for call by a client.

On this Friday night, nearly a hundred customers pack the bar farang, Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese and Thais drinking and watching. Scanning the young men under the spotlight, the drunken customers don't think of the young men's backgrounds or the hardship of their lives.

They're measuring the curve of their bodies and calculating the prices. Amidst the blasting heavy metal music and the changing colour of the smoke in the flashing lights, a boy sips his drink and tells the reporter in a loud and bright voice his hopes for the future: "Even though I have gone to bed with so many men......I still want to have a girlfriend. I want to marry ..... to have my own family _ a wife and children."