Thailand’s child sex trade and the cultural division of labour
The ongoing case of child sex trafficking in Mae Hong Son, with its allegations of police and bureaucratic involvement, is a national disgrace.
Thailand’s sex trade is worth an estimated Bt217 billion (US$6.4 billion). Yet the number of offenders arrested, prosecuted and convicted is woefully small. Furthermore, senior members of syndicates remain protected. Although police investigations are now expanding into Phuket, Thailand’s culture of impunity means modern slavery constantly threatens to engulf our children.
The Mae Hong Son case illustrates, in the worst possible way, Thailand’s internal colonisation of its ethnic minority communities: the “cultural division of labour”. Thailand’s colonisation of its own people, following the British imperial model, has even been acknowledged by the Thai military: in 1976, General Saiyut Koetphon, former head of Internal Security Operations Command, stated: “Avoiding colonisation by Europe simply meant that we colonised our own people. This internal colonialism, in which officials appointed from the metropolis rule and drain the countryside like conquered provinces, has led to obvious differences among the Thai.”
The term “cultural division of labour” was popularised by Professor Michael Hechter in the 1980s, to describe the relationship between England and the UK’s Celtic fringe (Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland). England’s internal colonies were both the first of its acquisitions and the last vestiges of its empire.
Broadly, cultural division of labour is the use of ethnic communities to serve the state capital. In Bangkok, one prominent example is the historical use of Thai Lao people from the Northeast as construction workers, maids, gardeners and taxi drivers.
The cultural division of labour also has a long history in the child sex industry. In World War II the Nazis promoted the kidnapping of Polish and Russian girls as young as 15 to fill German military brothels, while Japanese forces used young Korean, Chinese and Philippine women as sex slaves. In the contemporary era, the cultural division of labour in child sex trafficking is found across Asia. The most prominent example is Cambodia, a notorious haven for paedophiles. For years, Svay Pak, a Vietnamese village outside Phnom Penh, was the centre of Cambodia’s child sex trade. Here, Vietnamese and Cambodian girls from 5-16 were offered to paedophiles. While local men are the most prevalent customers, other Asian men and Westerners also frequent Cambodia for child sex tourism.
Illustrating this cultural division of labour in Thailand is the case in Mae Hong Son, which is a Karen area. The case now involves 29 instances of modern slavery, seven of buying sex services, and one gang rape of a minor. Local girls here are regularly offered to VIP officials from Bangkok, with the 11 brothels in Mae Hong Son allegedly being owned by a police officer. In fact, the “welcoming tradition” or “serving dessert to the bosses tradition” appears to exist throughout Thailand, though is more widespread in tourist provinces. Sanphasit Koompraphat, former committee member for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, alleges the practice is widespread and even extends to rural female state schoolteachers being offered in exchange for budgetary support.
The view that upland minorities are available for sex originated in the 1950s with the publication of “30 Nations” in Chiang Rai by Boonchuay Srisawaddi, which mistakenly characterised senior Akha women initiating young men into sex. This was the birth of upland minorities as an erotic “other” for Thais. The insecurity of economically depressed ethnic minorities attempting to obtain citizenship, and a lack of democratic oversight in Mae Hong Son, only compound the situation, as ethnic minorities seek to ingratiate themselves with appointed bureaucrats. The refugee camps are also a source of children for prostitution.
The relationship between Bangkok and the North has been one of full-blown internal colonialism for decades due to the relative underdevelopment and political subordination of local communities, with the Lanna (Northern) identity being eradicated by the suppression of local culture and burning of manuscripts. However, officials only started leaving Bangkok to inspect the North in any number in the 1960s, and mass tourism only took off in the 2000s. Visiting officials expecting sex from young women and minors is thus a recent development.
Children being forced into prostitution occurs daily across Thailand, with mainly ethnic minority, Myanmar and Lao victims. For instance, the 2016 police raid on the Nataree Massage Parlour discovered 15 mostly Myanmar children in forced prostitution. Copious evidence was found incriminating local police and immigration police. This echoes the evidence of high-level, extensive police involvement in the Mae Hong Son case, where nine police officers have been sacked or transferred,
The Civic Council of Mae Hong Son has called for the prime minister to designate the province as a pilot area for a crackdown on human trafficking, corruption and illicit drugs. In its three-phase plan, the first should include protecting and helping victims, transparent and honest investigations, and punishment for perpetrators. Phase two should include a follow-up audit process, campaigns against human trafficking, promotion of whistle-blowing, and oversight of establishments potentially involved in modern slavery. Finally, campaigns should promote proper values, and the government should support provincial socio-economic development.
Unfortunately these common-sense solutions risk being ignored under the prevailing mentality of internal colonialism. Thailand’s imperial phase is far from over, with every case of children forced into prostitution, enforced disappearance and torture emphasising the plight of Thailand’s colonised ethnic minorities.
Thailand desperately needs a decolonisation process, one backed by legislation addressing economic, social and cultural disparities, specifically a National Language Policy recognising Thailand’s ethnic communities; legislation countering racial discrimination; legislation to empower the National Human Rights Commission; and legislation on decentralisation for accountable democracy, including elected governors. Nothing else will save our children.