Migrating With Hope

Images Asia
July 1997

This report, 'Migrating With Hope: Burmese Women Working In Thailand and The Sex Industry" attempts to present and highlight the needs, interests, and realities of undocumented migrant women from Burma' working as sex-workers2 in Thailand. We look at the lives of women in Burma, the migration processes, processes of entry into the sex-industry, and factors which govern women's well-being or suffering during the time of migration in Thailand. The authors hope that the documentation presented will provide useful information to prospective migrants from Burma. We also hope that it can be used to instigate programmes to protect the rights of and to provide the necessary services for undocumented migrant workers, and by doing this, prevent more Burmese women from being exploited. This report is written in the knowledge that women can become empowered to make informed choices about their lives. It is also hoped that this report will provide the general public with information not only about Burmese migrant women, but also about the situation of undocumented migrant workers who flee from Burma, a country ruled by a military regime.

"Undocumented migrant workers", as defined by the United Nations, are "persons who do not fill the requirements established by the country of destination to enter, stay or exercise an economic activity", and therefore by definition do not appear on any official records. While working as sex-workers, Burmese migrant women are pushed further underground, not only because they are working in an illegal industry, but because of their lack of legal documentation. As with any illegal activity, the business of prostitution is difficult to investigate, and it is impossible to penetrate all the levels involved. During our research, we had always to be careful we did not jeopardize the safety and security of the women by drawing negative attention to them. Police raids on brothels and entertainment venues are often the result of such attention, and usually result in women being arrested, deported, or hidden.

Burmese women who migrate to Thailand, much like other people migrating all over the world, leave their homes and their families in a poor country with the goal of moving somewhere perceived as richer, with more opportunities for work. A comparison between the Thai and Burmese economic situations reveals a very distinct gap in the opportunity for increased standard of living, which attracts many Burmese people to work in Thailand. Women from Burma are also migrating from an oppressed society with a military junta, to a country with an elected government, where citizens have more freedom, and where there is greater respect for individual rights.

With little knowledge of the country to which they are moving, its language and its laws, women migrating from Burma are in a vulnerable position. The degree to which this vulnerability can be exploited by others depends to a large extent on the power and information that migrant have with which to protect themselves. The ability to protect oneself depends partly on understanding the immigration laws, the labour laws, and if separate, as is the case in Thailand, the laws regarding prostitution. But this also depends on the enforcement of these laws and the ability of the migrant women to take legal action against their employers It depends on the health-care systems, existing attitudes and prejudices between the two nationalities, the level of services for assistance existing in the receiving countries, and the accessibility of those services, legally and socially to "outsiders". Other important factors are the opportunities for legal migration, the cooperation and dialogue between the sending and receiving countries, and the services available to migrants on their return to their home countries. A recent report on migration to Thailand observes,

"Following the pattern of out-going Thai migrants, in-coming male migrants work in construction and female migrants in service sectors. The problem of illegal female migrants is being recognized ... as very serious.., because many of them are forced to become prostitutes, with very little protection in terms of personal safety and health.... This problem ... needs to be dealt with through collaborative efforts and with the cooperation of different agencies."

It was possible to complete this report through the assistance of the Burmese women, who generously shared their experiences, sometimes with laughter and sometimes with tears. Some women have expressed that living illegally in Thailand is far better than remaining in their homeland, as they have the hope of more opportunities and do not have to continually cope with the oppressive policies of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), or with the demands made on them by the ethnic armies. Some women have gone so far as to state that they feel that their life in Burma is worthless and that they have no hope in Burma under the SLORC, the military regime that has been in power in Burma since 1988. Without exception, these women show an incredible dedication and commitment to the well-being of their parents and families. It is unjust that they are stigmatized by their communities, and by society in general, because of the work they do in the hope of earning enough money to support their families. In the time we spent with them, we became acutely aware of their generosity and their gratitude towards their parents and families.

We also gratefully acknowledge the help of Thai health workers who are working to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids along the Thai-Burmese border, and women's organizations from Burma, ethnic nationality groups, and the Burmese people who encouraged and contributed to this report. Assistance also came from Burmese friends in refugee camps along the border, from various NGO's working  on women's issues and on children's issues, and others who have requested anonymity. Their efforts have been vital to the completion of this study, and have made it possible for us to produce tapes for Burmese sex workers in Thailand containing information and advice on HI V/Aids prevention in Shan, Akha, and Burmese languages.

The report itself is the result of collaborative research, writing and editing efforts by Thai, Burmese, and Western writers. Most of the particulars must remain confidential to protect those involved in the project. However, it should be noted that by necessity, the methodology employed changed considerably over the course of research. While this project was conceived to represent the voices of women from Burma, attempts to do so and wise counsel have proven that this is not the straightforward task it at first may have appeared to be. The researcher-interviewee relationship is inherently fraught with obstacles inhibiting the kind of self-disclosure which researchers desire to give their work "authenticity." Women's representations of their stories may vary radically depending on their situation -- for example, if they are in jail, in a brothel, or have not yet come to Thailand. They may be sensitive to the desires of the researcher, who may have "bought them out" (paid for their time as a customer would) for the interview, and may therefore feel compelled to give the "right" answers to the questions asked them. In addition, as human beings, women may be understandable uncomfortable with this focus on their identities as relating only to their work. As another researcher observes of women working in the sex industry,

"Their aspirations to be seen as part of mainstream society mean that using their voices to speak only on sex work is not a position they are willing to take. They do not see themselves constructed so discretely. 

The final product of this primary and secondary research represents something of a compromise. While at times we make reference to individual stories, we have chosen for the most part to pool the voices and experiences of many women, as related by those who have worked closely on the issue of sex-work for many years. We hope by doing this both to give a better understanding of these women's lives. We have therefore tried throughout to present a picture of the entirety of these women's lives, rather than focusing exclusively on them in terms of their present occupation, sex-work.

The research was undertaken in the border provinces of Thailand, inside Burma, and in Chiangmai province. All of the contributors were either Burmese in nationality, were Burmese doing sex-work themselves, had extensive experience in human rights documentation in Burma, or had worked for many years alongside Burmese sex-workers. Many of the women who have contributed to this report have chosen to remain anonymous.