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Trafficking in Burmese women

Interview by Samuel Grumiau, ICFTU Online..., 214/991116/SG, 18 November 1999

Brussels, November 18 1999: Every year, thousands of Burmese women fall into the hands of mafias who force them into prostitution in Thailand. How is this traffic organised? Hseng Noung Lintner, an activist in the "Shan Women Action Network", an NGO that assists women from the Shan ethnic group, explains.

How do the traffickers recruit their women?

The Burmese who are still in the country believe there is a lot of work for them in Thailand. Intermediaries go from village to village, offering well paid jobs (in construction, agriculture...). The inhabitants of remote rural areas can be naive, they have never been anywhere. They didnít even go to school. How can they imagine what would happen to them in Bangkok? The intermediaries offer the families money (between 250 and 500 dollars) to take the girls with them to Thailand but, once they have crossed the border, they are trapped: they are illegal immigrants with no money in a country whose language they donít know, and the mafias force them to work as prostitutes. They will only be free once they have earned enough to pay back the money given to their family.

What sort of conditions do they live in in Thailand?

They have to work 12 or 14 hours a day, with the risk of contracting sexually transmissible diseases....Some know how to protect themselves against AIDS, but they cannot refuse a client who does not want to use a condom. Recently, the police raided a brothel where there were 43 girls...34 of whom were HIV positive. Clients pay 4 dollars for 30 minutes with them, but they have to give half of that to the people who bought them.

In some cases, the girls forced into prostitution are arrested by the police just before they are about to be paid. I cannot prove it, but I presume that it is the traffickers, in league with the police, who tip them off in time so that they donít have to pay their victims. When they are arrested, the girls can be released if they have money to hand over. If not they are taken back to the border...where other pimps are waiting for them. There are also cases where the pimps make an under-the-table payment and get back from the police the girls who earn them the most.

Are there children among them?

Yes, a lot. Sometimes the Thai governments threatens to take action against the bars where child prostitution is to be found. The young girls are then transferred to small restaurants or karaoke bars where they continue to work as prostitutes. The uninitiated could pass by without noticing them, but the clients know where to find child prostitutes, and they want them to be younger and younger because of the fear of aids. They will pay up to 500 dollars to go with a virgin.

Is Bangkok the only destination for Burmese women?

No, a lot of them have to work in the border towns, for example near the Malaysian border. The mafias are very well organised, they have good connections for getting passports, visas etc. for their victims. Some of the girls find themselves in prostitution rings in Japan.

What happens to the prostitutes who get infected with the AIDS virus?

They are sent back to Burma, but their families donít always take them back: some are very badly informed about this disease and reject the girls. They are left to die outside the village, alone, with no medical care.