SEX IN DEPTH A boom at the border
By William Sparrow
BANGKOK- The struggles Myanmar has weathered in recent decades have led to a
sharp rise in the number of women opting to work in the sex industry to escape
poverty. Once confined to a small domestic market, the sex trade is now opening
to an emerging tourist market. This trend is particularly noticeable in towns
straddling the sometimes rough-and-tumble border region with Thailand. What
follows is an account of an encounter with prostitution in one such town.
While famously common in many parts of Asia, in Myanmar dens of prostitution
were comparatively rare just a decade ago. But extreme poverty and lack of work
has led more young women to
the sex trade - in karaoke bars, massage parlors, nightclubs and restaurants.
The military junta has mismanaged the country for decades. Coupled with botched
governance, crippling sanctions imposed on Myanmar by the international
community have hit hard. The regime's constant promises of democratic reform
never materialize and the salient lack of progress has drawn anger and further
sanctions from the United Nations and other world bodies.
In 1996, the military ditched socialism for a market economy. With socialism
banished, entrepreneurship, opportunism and individualism naturally took hold.
In one of the world's poorest nations, prostitution boomed.
In Myanmar civil servants, police officers and average workers make some 20,000
kyats (about US$17) per month. Many struggle to survive; and against this
backdrop it's understandable that impoverished women would turn to the sex
trade. As in many Asian countries, a young woman can make the equivalent of a
month's wage working as a prostitute on a single lucky night - especially if
the clients are foreigners.
"The basic [monthly] salary is similar to what I earned at a factory, but here
we get tips from customers," a working girl told Agence France Presse (AFP) in
a recent report. "Sometimes we earn 30,000 kyats in one night ..."
While prostitution is technically illegal in Myanmar, enforcement is often lax.
There is, of course, the bribe factor in play with police. This reporter could
find no one willing to expound on the dynamics of this arrangement. Education
and opportunities limit the lure of the sex industry in other regional
countries, but grinding poverty and poor schooling assure that it remains an
attractive option in Myanmar.
"The girls working in our shop include schoolgirls, nurses who are available to
work at night and university graduates," an unnamed source said to AFP. "Many
friends of mine work in [karaoke bars] or music pubs while also taking
university correspondence courses," she said.
Many women exist on the hope of a wealthy foreigner arriving to "rescue" them.
This is obviously rare, and one could conclude that these ladies are looking
for a future in all the wrong places. Still, the goal is to escape; to leave
Myanmar behind and go somewhere where a young woman can make something of
herself. Once there, they can help the family left behind.
Within that dream lies the sadness of the situation.
A run for the border
Live in Thailand a while and you're bound to meet many foreigners - Westerners
of all stripes - who keep their immigration status legal by doing "visa runs".
In the most basic terms, this requires an "exit" stamp and the purchase of a
new visa at any international border checkpoint. Leave, turn around and
A common "run", especially for Bangkok expatriates, is to travel to the border
crossing from Ranong, Thailand, into Kawthoung, Myanmar. It's not so far -
about 568 kilometers south of Bangkok - and the total cost can be less than
3,000 baht ($90).
But, for some, the trip can have value added. After listening to innumerable
expats who had made the journey, I learned that many like to combine the visa
run with a day of debauchery, dabbling in the bordellos of Kawthoung.
In Kawthoung, the venues for sex-for-hire include karaoke bars - referred to as
KTVs - or tumbledown brothels doubling as restaurants and bars. Although they
do have the private rooms used for karaoke bars, in Kawthoung few are actually
equipping with the audiovisual equipment needed to make music.
"The setup of a Burmese karaoke in Kawthoung is that they don't call them
karaoke bars, but just restaurants. Once you come in, a girl will bring you to
one of the small rooms inside. You have to pay for 'one table', which includes
a round of drinks, the table itself and the girl's company. Then you have to
pay for the girl separately for any 'services' beyond just her company.
Altogether, it still comes cheaper than most other Southeast Asia sex spots,"
said a crusty "sexpat".
In Kawthoung, the sex industry is still extremely Third World. During a recent
stopover in Kawthoung, I had the opportunity for a brief Myanmar experience. I
had no plan to explore the sex industry here, but, as it so often does in my
travels, an unlikely opportunity presented itself.
I wandered around Kawthoung, taking in the sights and fighting off touts
offering pornography VCDs, Viagra, prostitutes, gay prostitutes and illicit
drugs. They finally grew bored and left me on my own. Soon, I happened on one
of the "karaoke-restaurant" bars I had heard about. A half dozen ladies sat
outside, smiling and calling out greetings.
I went to a "mom and pop" store for cigarettes. A very young woman was handling
the transaction; thin, long hair, long legs, pretty face with no makeup. I
wondered if she was 18.
As she turned and descended into the dark shop, an elderly women, presumably a
relative, emerged from the shadows. She lunged from her seat, sensing
opportunity. "You want she?" the woman asked, meaning "her" - the young woman.
I was shocked and caught off-guard and couldn't respond. In the silence, the
elder woman continued "You want daughter? You take," she said, pointing. "Have
hotel. Fifteen dollar."
I stood stunned. The shop girl had returned and now stood next to her mother.
Her body language said it all: shoulders slumped, downcast eyes. She knew
exactly what sort of negotiations were taking place. And by all appearances she
didn't enjoy the prospect of being sold to a man for sex.
"No," I said firmly. With that, the old woman scowled and slunk back to her
The shop girl never met my eyes as she handed over the cigarettes. Still, I
perceived a small smile.
A sex slave working as a shop girl; a young woman being sold by her own mother.
It was a sad situation that I won't soon forget. Sadly, scenes like this will
likely continue until the Myanmar government can improve the lives of its 55
million people. I was overcome by this realization as I settled the bill in
that tiny shop on the Myanmar-Thai border.
As I turned to leave, I heard the shop girl whisper "thank you".
William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online
and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in
chief of Asian Sex Gazette and
has reported on sex in Asia for over five years. To contact him send question
or comments to Letters@atimes.com.