Loss of innocence
By MICHELLE CHAN
Monday November 2, 2009
Enforcement officers hot on the heels of sex traffickers in a bid to curb the thriving flesh trade in the Golden Triangle.
IN the stillness of a juvenile court, Naing, 15, stood motionless with a blank look on her face. She hardly heard the charges as they were being read out, overcome by numbness as she recounted the horrifying three months spent in forced prostitution in a country away from her home in a Myanmar village.
The smell of musty bedsheets in poorly-lit rooms lingered in her mind like slow poison. The constant beatings were not half as bad as being forced to entertain three to five men every day. Clients pay 300-700 baht (RM30-RM70) for a 30-minute session, and 1,000 baht (RM100) for an overnight job. But Naing hardly received any of the ill-gotten gains.
Naing shuddered. She was free, but still trapped. In the courtroom, all was cold and sterile. As the television screen buzzed to life, the blurry images slowly formed the close-up side profile of a man. He was sitting in the dock of a separate courtroom nearby.
Naing felt a surge of emotions. First fear, then anger, and finally a rush of hatred and despair. The sight of her former tormentor-cum-sex broker was too much for her. She could hear the distant echo of a question: “Do you recognise this man?” All she could do was burst into tears.
Her reaction was damning evidence against the sex broker (pimp), whose persuasive words and promises of a better job turned into a terrifying nightmare for the naïve teenager. The pimp was jailed and Naing has since been repatriated to her village.
Like many ethnic immigrants ensnared by South-East Asia’s flesh trade, life for Naing is no fairytale, but it is slightly better than the plight of many women and children trapped in the vicious limbo of human trafficking. It is an industry that includes paedophilia, human slavery and to an extent, organ harvesting.
However, not all victims of sex trafficking can find an easy escape.
As law enforcement officers tighten the noose around sex traffickers, sex agents quickly adapt. “Most traffickers know the confines of the law quite well, and can find a loophole rather quickly,” said Duean Wongsa, the project manager at Trafcord, northern Thailand’s anti-trafficking unit.
One of the common ways of avoiding detection is “catalogue-selling” their services where photo albums of girls in various poses are sent out as brochures, instead of conducting the conventional “cattle market” style where the girls are made to parade in front of prospective clients. Another way is to screen the clients before the girls are sent over.
“It is also more difficult to find victims of trafficking, as the sex brokers are extra careful in covering their tracks,” said Duean. These sex agents could be anybody. Many young girls are trafficked by people they know – aunts, uncles, friends and relatives, whose stories and promises of a better life entice them to leave home.
Also, sex agents survive by changing their base of operations. Once a hotbed of prostitution in Thailand, Chiangmai now serves as a hub for the transit of sex workers. The border towns of Tak and Tha Khi Lek – Mae Sai (Myanmar-North Thailand) are teeming with sex workers who stream in daily via motorcycles, buses, trucks and even on foot. Once they are in Thailand, makeshift visas are readied for the passage to Japan, Europe, Bahrain, South Korea and Singapore.
Some of the workers head for the shores of Malaysia, where they end up in brothels working 20 hours and servicing up to 10 clients daily.
In 2005, Trafcord co-operated with Tenaganita for the first time, in a Malaysian case. Ten girls, aged 14-15, were discovered working in a brothel in Johor Baru, servicing Singaporean clients. The girls originated from Thailand, Myanmar and China, and were lured there thinking they would be working as receptionists. The story is all too familiar. They ended up in prostitution and misery.
Regional co-operation is what Trafcord aspires to achieve, to stamp out trans-border human trafficking. Since 2003, MOUs have been signed with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to curb the vice in the Mekong area, where rampant trafficking has bedevilled the authorities for years.
But tackling human trafficking is not only the authorities’ job. It involves the effort of social workers, psychologists, lawyers, immigration officers and a network of people to bring one case to a closure. And the road to repatriation and restoration is often laborious and thankless.
“Human trafficking will not disappear in the near future because of economic situations, globalisation and the social fabric of our time,” explained Duean. “Although we try to co-ordinate and push for the process of law to protect victims of trafficking, it boils down to the government to take the lead in stamping out trafficking.”