Wish you weren't here. Tourism and child prostitution in Thailand

Master's Thesis, 1998

32 Pages, Grade: A












Young girls in supply, and the demand seems limitless

The commercial sexual exploitation of girls is a global, multi-billion dollar industry, pouring money into the hands of private citizens, tourists, governments and the police. No single approach, in a single country, can entirely solve the problem. Miki Garcia on how to cope with this international hazards.

‘We are born crying, not laughing.’ A Thai proverb says: Life is a struggle from start to finish. For many girls in Bangkok, these words reflect reality. In some Thai villages, girls are dragged out of school and sold for the price of a television set, and forced to work in brothels. They become the bikinied schoolgirls swinging and dancing provocatively on the catwalks of the city's numerous bars and the playthings of foreigners and Thais. The commercial sexual exploitation of girls or child prostitutes is not a new phenomenon but it is now a global, organised and growing industry.

‘The recent phenomenon is that overall number of prostitutes is decreasing but child prostitution is increasing. As a direct result of the Asian economic crisis, children are cheaper to hire. The economic crisis has changed the whole situation in Thailand, economically, politically and socially,’ Chris Beddoe, campaign co-ordinator of London-based charity End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) UK, said in an interview. Due to the nature of work, there are no reliable statistics. Children are the hidden side of an illegal industry. But UNICEF estimates that there are at least one million children in prostitution in Asia alone. Law enforcement by Thai authorities and extraterritorial legislation in the UK are proving ineffective in eliminating this problem. The child sex industry developed partly as a response to demand from tourists. Partly, it is a result of a proactive attempt to induce demand by creating supply. Child sex tourism means lucrative business for many people including hotel owners and taxi drivers, but never for the children. ‘Tourism cannot only provide the opportunity for the systematic abuser (paedophile) but can also provide the situational abuser (opportunistic) with the circumstances which promote their abuse. It is vital that the public are aware that such behaviour is not acceptable in developing countries,’ said Ms Beddoe. Poor countries are under economic pressure to develop tourism as a source of income. World-wide travel has increased sevenfold since 1960, according to ECPAT data, which suggests tourism will soon be the biggest industry globally. Child sex tourism is now part of this world-wide business.

For most people a holiday means ‘having a break’. But for some Britons and others, it means ‘engaging in sexual activities with children’. There are an estimated 110,000 convicted male paedophiles in England and Wales, according to a Home Office study. ‘It is as though these men, a lot of whom come from the West, believe they are entitled to come and buy whatever they want in a poor country and that the children should be grateful because they get some money,’ said Dr. Kitija Phornsadja, Project Director for UNICEF in Bangkok. According to the ECPAT international headquarters in Bangkok, there were about 20,000 child prostitutes in 1991. By 1996, there were 250,000. The evidence supports the belief that as the tourism industry expands there is a parallel expansion of child sex tourism. The report states that individuals who see the sexual exploitation of children as some sort of hobby or sport, supply information on new locations, prices and even individual children for free, to others like themselves, increasingly by using hard to control internet technology. You can get any kind of information through the internet. For instance, a novice who doesn’t not know how to find a girl can open the site (http://fantasyisles.com/). It recommends a book called Fantasy Islands: A Man’s Guide to Exotic Women and International Travel, or The Gentlemen’s Guide, which will tell you how to make friends with ‘useful information’. After arriving in Bangkok, the easiest way to meet the right people is to go to a bar. Instantly, locals will approach you with loads of trivia. Small-scale travel operators, very often one man outfits, can instantly arrange sex travels and indicate the resorts where prostitution is easily available. They can make arrangements - a 24-hour companion or show you the hotels known to tolerate or actively promote prostitution. Customers can choose child escorts from catalogue pictures. On top of that, they can easily provide a vehicle for travelling sex tourists. Travel arrangements for the vast majority of sex tourists are organised by reputable local travel agents and package tour operators. Sex tourists are transported by ordinary airlines. The marketing material by many reputable travel companies helps sustain the flow, often stressing the attractions of night life, promulgating stereotypes about Third-World-people as ‘smiling’, ‘laid back’, and ‘exotic’. A Dutch travel agency offers some pictures of children on the travel brochures, smiling and wearing traditional Thai dresses. A girl wearing a make up sits in a temple, and the leaflet reads: ‘You can get the feeling that taking a girl here is as easy as buying a package of cigarettes. Little slaves who give real Thai warmth.’ According to the Real Man’s Mid-life Crisis Tour of Thailand, which actually exists, and operates out of San Diego, US: ‘I recently had a 79-year old customer who visited Thailand after a by-pass operation and he had sex three times a day with prostitutes aged between 15- and 19-year-old. I tell you it almost brought tears in my eyes.’ Unfortunately, this kind of ‘Real Man’s’ tour exists all over the world. Newspapers in almost major cities of the world have open advertisements for tours to Asia whose purpose is to provide travellers sex with local girls. In Bangkok hotels, the Yellow Pages offer loads of advertisements. Organised sex tours that have been identified by ECPAT exist in Australia, France, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US. ECPAT also claims that paedophile travellers to Asia now have very well-established links. Many have a permanent residency in Thailand or other Asian cities, either as a retiree or a small business owner. From their base, they have devised ways to assist their friends from their home countries. In some cases, paedophile clubs in Europe have bought guest houses on the beach front for their members, and other long-staying paedophiles have opened homes for street children.

But why do people want to have sex with children? The anonymity the tourist enjoys abroad might release them from the social constraints of their home countries. According to the ECPAT report, in ‘exotic’ destinations, tourists usually don’t understand the language or the nuances in the society which can lead to assumptions, that sex with children is accepted there, or as another rationalisation, that commercial sex is a way to help children getting out of poverty. It also suggests that tourists from industrialised states, holding menial positions at home, are often ‘rich’ in their destination country. And this comparative wealth often changes their behaviour patterns.

‘I know a Swedish guy who works in a Sweden Embassy in Bangkok. If you want to get information on prostitutes, give him a ring,’ said ‘former-Londoner’ Jeremy Ruggrok, 61. According to him, he has many contacts, because ‘he is working for the Sweden Embassy’. Jeremy claimed that a man called Leif Alstead who works in the embassy got lots of information, but after contacting the Sweden Embassy in London later, it denied his existence saying that he was not on the Foreign Ministry’s list. Jeremy complained that he has recently lost his wallet. He said he didn’t even remember why or where he lost it, perhaps his one-night young employee took it. Wearing a singlet and baggy shirts, he proudly shows off his tattoos in Thai on his arms. ‘I didn’t like England. I used to have a flat in South Kensington. I worked at an estate agency in London, then I went to Zimbabwe and stayed there for several years and worked as a baker. I didn’t like that country very much.’ And he came to Mae Sai, Thailand about 10 years ago. ‘I love this country. Nice climate, nice people. I am usually based in Phuket. There are 5,000 strong British community there,’ he said proudly. Asked whether he finally felt like settling there, he said: ‘Yeah, I think so. But I might go to Cambodia.’ According to ECPAT, Cambodia has actually been marketed by illegal travel agencies as a paedophile haven, and the number of child prostitutes has been increasing sharply. He sits in the bar from 11 o’clock in the morning doing absolutely nothing but chatting with his mates from the US, the Netherlands, France, Sweden who are in the same situation. Asked why he likes Thai girls, he said, ‘All of my previous girlfriends have been Asians. I like their dark long hair and skin complexion. Age really doesn’t matter.’ There is a popular saying amongst paedophiles: ‘Age is not the problem. The point is one is able to have sex or not.’

The root cause is not straightforward. There are so many business interests coming from all directions. But to combat child sex tourism, the co-operation of the tourism industry is essential. Last year, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), ECPAT, Britain’s Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and HM Customs & Excise jointly produced an information leaflet on the introduction of extra territorial jurisdiction for British citizens. Tourism industry workers including tour guides, taxi drivers and room maids are in strong positions to gather information which would assist in the prosecution of those who commit crimes against children. Debbie Gibson, press officer of ABTA claims, ‘our campaign with ECPAT and others is doing well to bring awareness within the UK. If you don’t show the commitment with tourism, hotels, transport, and so on, you will never get rid of child sex tourism.’ ABTA has been promoting the message ‘there is no escape from prosecution’ through its members. Legislation, granting courts the power to try people for abusing children overseas has been introduced. For example, Co-op Travelcare which is an ABTA member, printed and distributed its own leaflets advising that ‘sex with a child is a crime.’ ‘Education from the tourist industry could prevent such behaviour,’ said Ms Gibson.

The Northern region is the poorest area of the country. The area was once known as the ‘golden triangle’ but is now dubbed the ‘golden quadrangle.’ New roads across the green hillsides are signs of a boom economy. The Mekong development project along the Mekong river is under way amongst four countries – Thailand, China, Laos and Burma. This notorious drug smuggling area is now aiming at economic growth. The Mekong is not only a river of hope for millions people, but it is also a focal point for the trafficking in women and children, which has increased rapidly in the past few years. According to ECPAT, trafficking of children is bigger than the drug trade. The number of children brought to work as prostitutes in Thailand from neighbouring Burma and Cambodia is over 10,000 each year, according to another report by the Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights (CPCR), a Bangkok-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). ‘In the Mekong Development Project, along with the building up roads and dams, urbanisation and environmental degradation means structural changes for families and rural communities. It may become more vulnerable to the effects of poverty and exploitation especially for the poor and the hill tribe people,’ said Wanlop Pichpongsa, operation officer of Population and Community Development Association (PDA) based in Mae Sai. ‘The Mekong development project can cause many things, both good and bad. There will be a black market in goods, smuggling and drug trafficking. Also, prostitution trends to increase.’

The Thai government is as ever keen to encourage tourism. Seree Wangpaichitr, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand said: ‘Over the next few years, the Mekong region will see intensive road-building, tremendous development of airports and airlines, and mega-million dollar investments in other infrastructure. This will bring business, conventions and holiday travel.’ But Mr Pichpongsa acknowledges that materialism has increased with the region's development. This encourages families to sell their daughters into prostitution to buy a new television set or to build a house. The business of child prostitution in Thailand is changing with these developments. Girls from neighbouring countries such as Burma and Cambodia come into Thailand, while girls who previously worked in a big city like Bangkok, go abroad to Japan, Europe, North America and Australia. Thailand is now both an exporting and a receiving country of girls for the sex trade.

According to ECPAT report, while the sexual exploitation of Thai girls seems to be declining, the cross-border trafficking of women and children from neighbouring countries has increased. The age of the children involved is also dropping. A UNICEF report reads children as young as five are being treated like commodities – taken from their homes and families to work in brothels, massage parlours, clubs and bars, or as private playthings for those who buy them like goods in a supermarket. ‘If we accept a world in which children can be bought and sold as if they are goods in a supermarket, we forfeit the right to call ourselves civilised,’ said Ron O’Grady, chair of ECPAT International. The fact of this flesh trade is that children who have no education, are forced to service anyone they are told. ‘So this often involves children being forced to take part in sadistic acts, group sex and all kinds of perversion,’ said Ms. Beddoe. Children are beaten and tortured if they refuse to comply. And they may never see their families again. Mr O’Grady pointed out that the organised child sex business is a recent phenomenon. Ms. Abueva agrees: ‘The problem is that many local men have begun aping the tourists. It’s part of the colonial mentality - if it is good for Western tourists, then it must be good for local men, too.’ The UNICEF report also notes that it is a death sentence, for half of all child prostitutes are estimated to be HIV positive. ‘Many men believe that sex with a child prostitute carries less risk of AIDS infection. This is a fallacy,’ said Amihan Abueva, a former executive director of ECPAT. ‘To most people in Asia, these men are unwanted parasites. They use the children as they wish and they fly out of the country, leaving behind the waste of broken young lives and the social catastrophe of AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases,’ Mr O’Grady sums up the voice of innocent children.

Mae Sai, the northernmost point of Thailand is a lively town, full of energy, like any other border town. Trading people come and go across into Tachileck, a Burmese border town, carrying huge wicker baskets. In the market, the signs are written in Thai, Burmese and Chinese and people yelling in those languages at customers. But the town has a completely different face at night. ‘It’s better not to go out at night. Many local people have been murdered by drug dealers and traffickers. After they are killed, they are thrown into the Mae Sai river,’ said Julie Stratford, a Mae Sai-based Australian aid worker. This is the area where a substantial young prostitutes are coming from. At night, almost no one is on the streets except those going to clandestine meetings. Ghost town-like Mae Sai has some 70 entertainment spots – brothels, meeting pubs, karaoke bars and massage parlours. You can see Tachileck town’s bright neon light from the Mae Sai side. Teenage girls stand along with pimps – chubby face with white thick power and vivid smudged lips. They are often in residential areas which creates an unusual atmosphere. Customers come from not only the local area but from abroad through highly organised tours. The pubs charge no entry fee and you can stay as long as you want. Just order a glass of beer (30 Baht about 50p – £1 = B60) until you find the girl you want. ‘If you are young and beautiful, you can be paid around B1000 (about £167) a night. If not, the price goes down B300, B200...or less,’ said Prakran Nilnet, 26, a local aid worker, who took me around and showed me the entertaining spots by motor bike. As we strolled around midnight, I came across Japanese and American tourists.

The origin of child sexual abuse is complex. Poverty is a major catalyst. And lack of education and job opportunities, criminal networks, amongst other things. Girls are more vulnerable than boys as they are seen as less valuable according to traditional perceptions. Minority ethnic groups are also vulnerable because they have different culture, language, value systems and various other issues. Parents sell daughters because there is no other means to earn money. Behind these attitudes, there is a lenient Buddhism philosophy based on gender bias such as daughter’s expectations and responsibilities to the families which dominate the whole Thai way of life. According to Buddhist philosophy, sex is not a sin which is tied to the natural world, the world of suffering and ignorance. The Buddhist ideology is also linked to the concepts of ‘merit making’. Such thought can rationalise that working as commercial sex workers means that they are helping their poor family financially, and the men believe that they are also helping poor girls. ‘Most child sexual abuses are reported which suggest the criminals are fathers, step-fathers, relatives, and neighbours,’ said Mr. Pichpongsa. Mikel Flamm, a Bangkok-based freelance journalist, also points out: ‘In Thailand especially, children are taught to do as their parents tell them and if it means to be sold to a brothel or to go with a stranger the parents may not even know. It is often a choice they have no control over. They become caught in a web they often just accept.’

It was just after 1 am. There was a loud hubbub in the door next to my hotel room in the capital’s inner suburb Sukumvit. ‘Don’t do this! Why are you doing this to me,’ a girl screamed. ‘I am dying.’ A man with French accent shouted: ‘I am your client. I am paying B2,000 for the night.’ And the girl started crying uncontrollably. Then, something hit the wall. ‘Why, why are you doing this to me.’ For girls at work, every night is a matter of survival.

In the lurid neon lights of Patpond Road, the centre of Bangkok, there is a dense cluster of go-go bars, explicit nude bars, massage parlours, alongside stalls selling food and fake designer clothes. Girls on the street distinguish men’s nationalities instantly. ‘G’day mate,’ to Australians, ‘Guten tag,’ to Germans, and ‘Ilashaimase,’ to the Japanese. With such an image, Patpong has world attention as ‘The Asia’s brothel.’ When I went to Nana Plaza, the second biggest red-light district in Bangkok with Mr. Flamm for my project. It was during Songkran, Thailand’s new year water festival in April. The area was packed with western men – some in their early-twenties or teens, others with big guts, some gorgeous-looking, others clearly retired – in the outdoor beer gardens. Men were screaming and running with baggy shirts holding water pistols, just like young boys. They were throwing water at girls and screaming in a shrill voice. Not barrier, no shame, no need for proper conversations because local girls there hardly speak English. It seems like they had become completely different personalities on a different planet. And they looked extremely happy. Bouncers solicited us to watch the ‘sex show of the night’. Girls with chubby faces were using their bodies as attractively as possible in order to get customers. Age ranged between 10 and 20. About 20 girls were dancing on stage. They change every 10 minutes and different girls show up. Entering the bar is free, a glass of beer costs about 30 Baht. You can stay as long as you like, enjoy the show, find a girl. At 11pm, the tonight’s show started. Some entertainer girls who perform on stage can get paid more than go-go girls. A girl on the shabby stage smiled at me sympathetically – probably she thought I was a prostitute as I was with an American man. She probably thought that we were on the same boat. I couldn’t really smile back. Mark King, 30-year-old businessman from England has been based in South East Asia for four years, observes the situation: ‘People who want to have sex might be fed up with strong western women. They might have had family and educational problems when they were growing up. They weren’t loved by their own parents. They are looking for affection. They are also attracted by Asian girls’ skin and dark hair. Plus their hospitality. Would you like some more? Are you tired? - they feel that at least somebody cares. But they treat Thai girls as a doormat.’

The Daughters’ Education Programme (DEP) is a NGO which provides education opportunities for girls in Mae Sai. Providing sponsorship for girls in their early teens can keep them off the streets and enhance their ability to find alternative employment later. The DEP identifies girls who are at risk from being sold into the profitable prostitution trade. They also try to be one step ahead of the agents who come to the villages with money to tempt parents to sell their daughters. It gives opportunities to young girls to stay in school till the final year of primary school. DEP sponsors vocational training as well. ‘Girls in the north have been exploited by society, by irresponsible adults and the people they trust, including their own parents,’ said Sompop Jantraka who started the programme. ‘These girls have enormous potential to improve. All they need is opportunities to learn, and to live in a stable community. Education is the way to give them the confidence and the ability to decide their own future.’ Mr Jantraka tells the parents what really happens to their children when they are sold. ‘But we also have to help them - if their girls come to us they would have a means of earning when they finished, because families are desperately poor in these places and it is a tradition for daughters to go to work to support them.’

There are many community-based projects that fight against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Prevention increases children’s awareness of their rights. Recovery programmes help the children who have been abused. The important thing is to provide children alternative jobs so that they may stop working as prostitutes. ‘Their work generates positive repercussion for the welfare of children,’ said Rarinthip Sirorat, chief of the foreign relations sub-division, in the Thai Department of Public Welfare. But despite this effort, many girls who often have only little education go back to work as prostitutes. ‘To those who are given the chance to learn a trade, this is a hard change for them and very often does not work, and they often last only a short time then go back to what they know best,’ Mr. Flamm pints out. ‘It is very difficult to explain to a girl who is used to making close to $100 per night to take a salary cut and make less than half of that. To the older girls who have been in the business for long periods of time, it becomes an addiction in away. There is an old saying: ‘you can take the girl out of the bar, but you can’t take the bar out of the girl. Many girls are addicted to drugs as well.’

Mr Pichpongsa also echoes this sentiment: ‘I have to admit that many agencies – both governmental and NGOs – have failed the occupational training. One reason is that they didn’t consider what is suitable for a particular community.’ Atchara Chan-O-Kul of the Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights (CPCR), based in Bangkok, agrees: ‘For example, there is a girl who trained as a hairdresser. But she can't make money as a hairdresser in her local village. Because there is no demand for it.’ NGOs have to look at what is of benefit to local community and how to use their skills rather than let girls learn the new technology which is far away from their culture.’ In some situations, a hairdresser runs the brothel in the back of the shop, or upstairs while giving customers a massage. Ms Beddoe also points out that the need is not always for traditional gendered jobs which can be biased against earning the same money as men but a much broader all-round training to allow women to progress socially and economically. Ms Beddoe explains another pitfall: ‘The intervention by NGOs, is essential but in longer term view, in financial side, funding is the major problem of not to keep continuing the longer term programme. The lack of funding makes it difficult to continue although they need t have a big picture.’ For instance, Mr. Flamm tells the story of his neighbour: ‘There is a young girl who lives at my apartment building. I think she is around 16 or 17. She has a year-old baby. Her boyfriend is also 16 and still goes to school. She works in a bar full time to support them both while he continues with school. This is their way of life and I doubt it will change. I also know the baby is probably brain damaged as well. When she first learnt she was pregnant, she took some medicine to abort the foetus but it did not work. The child seems to have suffered some impairable brain damage from this. There are many similar cases.’

No single approach, in a single country can solve the problem. There are growing concerns in many countries. In Thailand, in terms of the government’s tourism policies, it is likely that the aim was the investment in infrastructure parallel with the sex industry. Then Deputy Prime Minister Boonchu Rojanasathian, advised provincial governors to encourage sex tourism in 1980 saying that: ‘We must do this because we have to consider the jobs that will be created for the people. Certain entertainment activities which some of you may find disgusting and embarrassing because they are related to sexual pleasures. Such forms of entertainment should not be prohibited only because you are morally fastidious.’

In September 1992, then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai sought to crack down on child prostitution and trafficking problem. Two main goals announced at that time were intended as an alternative prevention for the children at risk. As most sex workers come from poor income families where educational opportunities are greatly lacking, this programme sought to improve the standards of educational opportunities, but it did not tackle the problem for the children who are already caught in the web of exploitation. These beginning steps were: to improve the formal and informal education opportunities; to provide vocational training under the Public Welfare Department; and to set up scholarships in poor rural areas under the Ministry of Education.

In Thailand, new amendments to the Penal Code were introduced in late 1996 which include stiffer penalties for the pimps and procurers of children for sexual purposes. The Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act 1996 seeks harsher punishment imposed on clients’, procurers and parents bringing under 18-year-old into the flesh trade. The law punishes everyone involved in the trade, including poor parents who sell their children, middlemen, clients and ring leaders. According to the new law, a jail term of of 2-20 years and/or a fine of 40,000-400,000 baht would be imposed on those having sex with prostitutes under 15-year-old. Procurers and operators who bring children under 18s into prostitution would face a 5-15 years jail sentence and/or a fine of 200,000-400,000 baht. Parents or patrons who conspire with others to allow under 18-year-old to go into prostitution would face similar penalties. Moreover, the bill requires the setting up of an occupation protection and development committee to map out prevention policies, protective mechanisms and measures to equip former prostitutes with the skills to enter other occupations and improve their lives. However, child prostitution in Thailand is actually on the increase because the new law prosecutes everybody. Mr Flamm believes that new laws have just forced the pimps and procurers to change their tactics to go more underground and be hidden from view.


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Wish you weren't here. Tourism and child prostitution in Thailand
City University London
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ISBN (eBook)
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tourism, thailand, child prostitution, prostitution
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Miki Garcia (Author), 1998, Wish you weren't here. Tourism and child prostitution in Thailand, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/491026


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