Prostitution in Thailand: Facing Hard Facts

By Donald Wilson and David Henley, in Bangkok Post,
25 December, 1994

Bangkok, the capital or Thailand ... often mentioned as a place where there are a lot of prostitutes.

When this admittedly off-beat description of the humid, grid-locked, vibrant hell that is Thailand's capital city appeared in the 1993 edition of Longman's English Language and Culture Dictionary, most Thais were incensed.

Demonstrations were held outside the British Embassy, copies of the book were publicly burned, and the publishers rapidly agreed to withdraw the edition from circulation.

When, a few weeks later, `Time' featured a lurid cover shot of a half- naked Thai bar girl next to the caption "Sex for Sale", Thais were even angrier.

More recently -- in March, 1994 -- the United States placed Thailand at the top of a list of countries accused of violating women and children's rights. According to US Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck, about 800,000 women under the age of 18 are employed in Thailand's sex trade -- a charge which the Thai authorities were quick to condemn as "grossly exaggerated".

A tradition of prostitution?

Of course, it is easy to understand why Thais become irritated -- nobody enjoys having their dirty linen washed in public. The Thais, a people renowned for their good humour, hospitality and sense of fun, are genuinely distressed. Surely, they ask, there are prostitutes in Europe and America?

Sex is for sale just about everywhere except (perhaps) in North Korea, so why does Thailand always get singled out for more than its fair share of the blame?

The trouble, is, Thailand really does have a larger sex entertainment industry than most other countries. A lot of Thais simply don't know this -- relatively few travel abroad -- and the idea that Patpong is larger, more vibrant and more user-friendly than London's dingy Soho or San Francisco's sleazy and dangerous Tenderloin may not occur to them. But it is also a fact that a lot of Thais simply don't want to know.

Today, of course, faced with the reality of Aids (figures released by the Public Health Ministry in April this year indicate Thailand has as many as 1.3 million HlV-positive people, or about 2.1% of the total population) Thais -- like people everywhere -- are having to rethink their ways.

And, as a matter of fact, they are not doing badly at all. Thai Aids awareness campaigns are carefully implemented throughout the country, from Bangkok to the remotest hill tribe village. Condoms are universally available and increasingly widely used, so that unusually for Asia -- population growth is well under control. Even so, it is plain that the implications of an unchecked Aids epidemic for Thailand remain truly frightening, especially in the North.

Blaming Uncle Sam

In the meantime, under the scrutiny of the outside world and faced with the unwelcome moral dilemma of explaining just why this country has attained international notoriety as a sex centre, many Thais perhaps understandably try to place the blame on the outside world, and more particularly on the USA.

To give just one example, Sappasit Kumprapan, a committee member of the Children's Foundation and a well-known human rights activist, claimed in an interview earlier this year that "American soldiers created the prostitution boom in Thailand some 20 years ago and now America has brought a consumer view to the Thai mind".

One effect of this new view, Sappasit suggests, is "looking at every thing with speculator's eyes, looking at people as if they are sex objects, buying sex, selling sex until there's just a lot of sex and violence everywhere".

To be sure, there is come truth in this view -- a conception which seems to be shared by the great majority of Thais. The American presence in Bangkok and the larger cities of Northeast Thailand during the Vietnam War certainly affected Thailand's sex industry, diversifying it, making it more raunchy and more obvious, while at the same time bringing it to the attention of the outside world.

This process has been continued by sex tourism and the emergence of lurid night life centres like Patpong, Pattaya and Phuket's Patong Beach -- all well-known in the West. Other areas, too, have tarnished Thailand's image elsewhere in the world. The southern cities of Sungai Golok and Hat Yai are notorious throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, Bangkok's Thaniya Road is flooded with Japanese sex tourists and businessmen, while the capital's Sutthisan Road area is a popular destination for visiting Singaporeans and Taiwanese seeking a slice of "Thailand by Night".

This, then, is the noisier, better-publicised aspect of Thai night life. But it is also just the tip of an iceberg. For the Thai men themselves have long been inveterate brothel users. Estimates vary as to the number of prostitutes in the country, with the Public Health Department pitching in at a low 200,000 and others, such as Sappasit Kumprapan, putting the figure nearer two million.

In reality, there seems little point in arguing about numbers. It is a simple fact that Thailand has far too many establishments offering commercial sex, from the "member clubs" and massage parlours of uptown Bangkok, through the seedy tea houses of Chinatown, to the dingy and dangerous brothels which can be found in small country towns throughout the country.

American "R&R;" and international sex tourism can hardly be held responsible for this state of affairs. Clearly, a large part of the problem must be domestic. To bear this out, the Public Health Ministry recently released figures showing that 75 per cent of Thai men sleep regularly with prostitutes, while 44 per cent of teenage boys pay for their first sexual experience.

Today most informed Thais would probably agree that the domestic sex industry is big, dangerous, corrupt and responsible for seriously damaging Thailand's image abroad. Fewer, perhaps, realise just how old Thailand's tradition of prostitution is, how deeply grained and therefore how difficult to reform.

Times past

The Chinese voyager Ma Huan, writing in 1433, records that in Siam:

If a married woman is very intimate with one of our men from China, wine and food are provided, and they drink and sit and sleep together. The husband is quite calm and takes no exception to it; indeed, he says "My wife is beautiful, and the man from China is delighted with her".

Despite Ma's whimsical style, readers should be assured that this is not, and never has been, a traditional Thai custom. While there are no direct indications that the "men of China" paid for the privilege, one can fairly assume that this is an early record of prostitution (and of procurers) in Thailand.

When, some 200 years later, European vessels began regularly to visit Siam, prostitution certainly existed. A Dutchman called Van Neck, who visited Pattani in 1604, reports that "when foreigners come there from other lands to do their business ... men come and ask them whether they do not desire a woman" -- an approach that any single male who has landed at Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport will instantly recognise. Another Dutchman, Gisbert Heeck, referring to the conditions in which the VOC staff lived at Ayutthaya, the Siamese capital, in 1655, notes that:

Most of them had concubines or mistresses, in order (so they said) to avoid the common whores, and they maintained them with all necessities, buying or building houses for them... (though) they rarely refer to them other than as whores, sluts, trollops and the like, up to and including the director, for hardly anybody was free of this failing. Anybody who earned enough to keep such trollop had to have one, even if it meant they had not a penny to their name afterwards -- indeed, some were deep In debts, as I saw for myself.

Quoting further passages of this kind is really not necessary. The point is not that medieval Siam was to blame for having prostitutes -- London, Amsterdam, and indeed any port in Europe were undoubtedly much the same. Rather, what is significant is that Thai society has long had a tradition of prostitution, and it is both misleading and ultimately self-defeating to blame this exclusively on the West.

To bear this out from an early Thai source, we know that in the 1680s a particular Thai official was licensed by the state to run a monopoly of the prostitution business in Ayutthaya, using 600 women bought or enslaved for various offences. As Anthony Reid, a distinguished Australian scholar of Southeast Asian history has indicated, this appears to have been the origin of Thai tradition of deriving significant state revenue from prostitution. By the mid-19th century -- still well over 100 years before the US involvement in Vietnam -- Bangkok's extensive prostitution industry was centred on the Chinese district of Sampeng Lane, where green lights instead of the usual red signalled houses of ill repute.

Times recent

Turning to the 20th century, Western soldiers first came to Thailand in serious numbers in the wake of the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War. In 1945 one such young American was Jorges Orgibet, at that time a press officer with the US Office of War Information. Later Orgibet would go on to become a distinguished Bangkok-based journalist and co-founder of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. He remained in Thailand for 37 years and was, at all times, an exceptionally good friend of this country.

Orgibet remembers his arrival in Bangkok, one of only 50 Americans in the country at the time, with affection. There were 85 cabarets scattered across the city with names like Great World, Happy World, Venus Club and (shades of Sampeng) Green Lantern. The greatest concentration was on one block of Nares Road, "with something like 2,000 `hostesses' for the asking".

Other attractions of the time included "a nine-storey building on Yaowarat Road, reputedly the world's largest whorehouse", plus a plethora of stripclubs, dance halls, tea houses, etc.

Bangkok in the late 40s even had the reputation of being one of the blue movie capitals of the world ... one top-floor loft on Ban Moh houses a Thai film studio devoted entirely to blue movie production. In explaining the number and range of such establishments in Thailand, Orgibet comments:

"Cabarets were a direct descendant of the Thai ramwong dances found in almost every town and at every fair. Live shows, blue movies, young virgins were touted by rickshaw pullers and bicycle samlor drivers long before the touts of Patpong and Petchburi came into existence ... It was 300,0000 Japanese troops during World War II ... and the 30,000 British and Indian troops who followed them that helped fill Bangkok's cabarets. The majority of the patrons, after all, were Siamese and Chinese.

Times present... and future?

In summary, it seems clear that US marines on R&R; together with sex tourists cannot be held solely responsible for corrupting Thailand's morals and spreading prostitution in the country -- only for making things uglier, more obvious and worse. Nor will cleaning up the tourist sex scene put matters right, though it would certainly help.

Instead, it has to be recognised that the reasons for Thailand's development as a centre of the sex trade older and deeper, lying buried -- it might be argued -- in an easygoing, often commercial attitude toward sex which may have been appropriate to a pre-Aids society, but which now requires urgent rethinking.

Unfortunately, it may prove difficult to break this link between sex and commerce. Thailand is no longer a poor country, and its new found prosperity, combined with a genuine embarrassment at the country's reputation overseas, has caused the Government of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to take action. To date, moves have been made against child prostitution and against police corruption and involvement in the sex trade. The authorities are also actively trying to discourage Thai women from working in the red light areas of Japan, where some 70,000 are employed in the sexual entertainment business, usually under the heel of Yakuza gangsters.

Yet, even as these measures begin to bear fruit, thousands of young, uneducated and impoverished females from Burma and South China are streaming across the borders to "man" the brothels of Bangkok and the provinces. The draw of Bangkok's booming economy is powerful magnet, and Thailand, in attending NIC status, has also become a net importer of sexually-exploitable women. Under such circumstances, breaking a prostitution habit that goes back many centuries will undoubtedly prove hard. For many Thais, and especially for many Thai men, openly recognising that such a tradition exists must be a positive albeit painful, first step.

A Response

by Ajarn Samart Srijumnong at UIUC,
written for the soc.culture.thai group

From: (Samart Srijumnong) )
Newsgroups: soc.culture.thai
Subject: Re: Prostitution: Facing Hard Facts
Date: 28 Dec 1994 18:43:24 GMT

Very illuminating article on the issue that I have ever read. I was going to say that Bangkok Post is not widely read by the public but maybe this is the way to make things work. The prostitution problem roots in the fact that it has not yet been recognized as problem or at least not a "significant" problem. When Supatra first moved Chuan government to act on child prostitution, many dump MPs comments he got the wrong move. He should have, these MPs said, taken economic problems first. When the British dictionary added prostitution into the characteristics of Bangkok in its definition of the city which is surely selective, I was mad but thought on the other hand it would be good to make most people realize the problem is well documented, almost institutionalized. My hope does not seem to stay as nothing serious had been done to tackle the problem.

Sometimes we are mad when farangs point at the problems which otherwise could have been felt first by us. The truth is they (the farangs) are the margin of the society when they enter or simply intellectually counter the society. They are from other societies. Hence they see things from OTHER moral standards which may sound both good and bad. The good thing is they could help making us realize in how immoral some things which have long been taken for granted, prostitution is for one. I am not going to talk about the bad side of it as we all can find many good reasons to qualify it.

Tell you the truth, friends, as a Thai, it been such painful to see the country being publicized in this bad way but to shut them up is not going to help a thing, not to mention those who struggle in such problems. It's time for us to make it even more publicized. A patient who deny his/her disease and refuse to go to see a doctor would surely die. We are dying. The prostitutes are dying (because of AIDS and other STDs). The prostitution customers are dying (because of AIDS and other STSs). The infants who fathers carry with them the disease are dying. The mothers whose husbands carry with them the disease are dying. Most patients who need blood transfussioni are dying....who else live....

Some may comment on my remarks as too sentimental but that how things are. Isn't it because Sitthatha developed some sentiments when he saw the four "normal" things: birth, aging, illness, and death, that moved him to begin to question about human lives and ultimately human morality. Sentiment is the high form of problem recognition. We need it to push us forward in the direction of problem recognition if not solving.

We all love our country. No one denies that. We are mad when the country is adversely portrayed. The love of the country alone may not count for such anger. Deep down in our mind, IMO, we are EMBARRASSED that where on earth we have been during these days. Why haven't we done anything to alleviate the problem if not get rid of it. That's probably why we are angry. Go ahead keeping angry up but don't simply point it the those who firstly brought the issue up. Point at yourselves!

I am angry again...

Regards, Samart.

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