SEX AND PROSTITUTION IN MYANMAR

SEX IN MYANMAR

Virginity has traditionally been greatly prized in modest Burma-Myanmar. A 1997 English language tourist brochure referred to Burma as "The Land of Virgins and the Restful Nights" and said its "trademark" virgins are famous for their "clear skin." But things are changing "Traditionally there was a big value on virginity," one magazine editor told the Los Angeles Times. "But increasingly not. Parents can't control their kids so strictly anymore."

Condoms were banned until 1993. Today condoms and ticklers old on the streets of Yangon.

Even though the military government passed a decree in early 1999 forbidding women from working at bars as pat of a campaign against prostitution, something the military government is adamantly against, there are los of prostitutes in Chinatown.

Underwear Superstitions in Myanmar

Underwear can be a sensitive topic in Myanmar. Never raise your underwear above your head. This is considered very rude. Washing is often by hand. If you have some laundry done at a guesthouse, some people make take offense to washing your under garments. If you wash them yourself do so in a bucket, don’t do it in the sink. When drying underwear, do it in a discreet place and don’t hang it so it is head level or above as it is regarded as dirty and uncouth for part of the lower body to be higher than the head.

There is a superstition in Myanmar that contact with women’s garments, especially underwear, can sap men of their strength. It is widely believed in Myanmar that if a man comes in contact with a woman's panties or sarong they can rob him of his power. In 2007 one Thai-based group launched a global 'panties for peace' campaign, in which supporters were encouraged to send women's underwear to Burmese embassies, in the hope that contact with such garments would weaken the regime's hpoun, or spiritual power. The generals may indeed subscribe to this belief. It is widely rumoured that, before a foreign envoy visits Burma, an article of female underwear or a piece of a pregnant woman's sarong is hidden in the ceiling of the visitor's hotel suite, to weaken their hpoun and thus their negotiating position. [Source: Andrew Selth, a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, The Interpeter, October 22, 2009]

The Daily Mail reported: “Burma's iron-fisted - yet superstitious - military junta believe touching lady's underwear will "rob them of power", organisers say. And Lanna Action for Burma hope their "Panties for Peace" campaign will help oust the oppressive rulers who ruthlessly crushed recent democracy protests. The group's website explains: The Burma military regime is not only brutal but very superstitious. They believe that contact with a woman's panties or sarong can rob them of their power. So this is your chance to use your Panty Power to take away the power from them. Activist Liz Hilton added: "It's an extremely strong message in Burmese and in all Southeast Asian culture. [Source: Daily Mail]

Prostitution in Myanmar

Despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in Myanmar, many women are in the sex trade because of the difficulties making decent money doing anything else. Accurate figures of the number of sex workers are difficult to come by. But some media reports say that there are more than 3,000 entertainment venues such as karaoke places, massage parlours or nightclubs where there are sex workers, and that there are an estimated five sex workers in each venue. [Source: The Irrawaddy]

Describing the prostitution scene in Yangon after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Aung Thet Wine wrote in The Irrawaddy, “They’re known fancifully as nya-hmwe-pan, or “fragrant flowers of the night,” although the reality of after-dark life for Rangoon’s increasing number of prostitutes isn’t so romantic. The number of “fragrant flowers” walking the streets and working the bars of Burma’s major city has reportedly soared since Cyclone Nargis ripped into the Irrawaddy delta and tore families apart. The arrival of desperate young women ready to trade their bodies for the equivalent of two or three dollars has depressed Rangoon prices still further, and the new girls on the block face not only police harassment but the hostility of the “old timers.” [Source: Aung Thet Wine, The Irrawaddy, July 15, 2008 *]

“One afternoon in central Rangoon, I went hunting for an interview subject in one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Bogyoke Aung San Street. I didn’t have far to look. Outside the Thwin cinema, a woman in her forties approached me with the offer of a girl of my choice. She was accompanied by about nine heavily made-up young women, ranging in age from the mid-teens to their thirties. I chose a girl in her twenties and took her to a brothel posing as a guesthouse. *

There are many risks “that haunt these young women. They are a vulnerable target for drunks and other men on the prowl in Rangoon’s ill-lit streets. Rape is an ever-present threat. HIV/AIDS infection is another hazard. Although the 20 or so sex workers I talked to all said they asked clients to use condoms, one 27-year-old from Hlaing Tharyar Township conceded that sometimes they consented to unprotected sex. Market pressures limit a Rangoon sex worker’s influence over her clients. “If I reject a customer there are many others who’ll accept his demands for the price of a meal,” sighed one.” *

Guesthouse Brothels and the Police That Protect Them

Describing a guesthouse in Yangon, where prostitutes operate, Aung Thet Wine wrote in The Irrawaddy, “The “guesthouse” rented its 30 or so rooms to “short stay” guests, charging 2,000 kyat (US $1.6) for an hour and 5,000 kyat ($4) for the night. Its corridors reeked of cigarette smoke, alcohol and cheap perfume. Scantily dressed women lounged beyond open doorways, waiting for customers. I was reminded of similar scenes from foreign movies. [Source: Aung Thet Wine, The Irrawaddy, July 15, 2008 *]

“When we left the guesthouse, and I was alarmed to see two uniformed police officers in the entrance. Soliciting for prostitution is illegal in Burma and the sex trade can also get customers into trouble. But the guesthouse owner didn’t turn a hair—and it soon became apparent why. To my alarm, he invited them in, sat them down and, after some pleasantries, he handed them a large envelope, clearly containing money. The policemen smiled and left. “Don’t worry, they’re my friends,” the guesthouse owner assured me. *

“Brothels masquerading as guesthouses are mushrooming all over Rangoon, despite the difficulty of obtaining licenses. “It’s not that easy,” a guesthouse owner in Insein Township told me. “You have to obtain all kinds of documents from the police and local authorities.” Once licensed, a guesthouse owner still has to nurture good relations with the neighborhood police, paying annual “levies” ranging from 300,000 kyat ($250) to 1 million kyat ($800). The money buys advanced warnings from the local police if a raid is planned by superior officers. It’s a profitable arrangement for both sides. Guesthouses used by outside sex workers can earn up to 700,000 kyat ($590) a day by renting out its rooms, while an establishment employing its own women can make more than 1 million kyat ($800), sources told me. *

“Similar amounts of money can be made by bars and massage parlors catering to Rangoon’s moneyed class—well-heeled businessmen, government officials and their sons. A young waiter at Rangoon’s Pioneer Club held up the fingers of both hands to indicate the multiples of thousands of kyat reaped nightly in profits by the city’s successful establishments. *

“The protection bought for the young women working in these places isn’t available, however, to the street walkers at Bogyoke market, the city’s bus stations and other public places. They ply a risky trade, constantly on the watch for patrolling police. One 20-year-old told me: “I was arrested last month and had to pay 70,000 kyat ($59). Some of my friends who weren’t able to pay are now in prison.” *

Karaoke Prostitution in Myanmar

Karaokes often serve as fronts for prostitution. Ko Jay wrote in The Irrawaddy in 2006, “On a typical night in downtown Rangoon, the Royal is crowded with men looking for more than a song and with young women whose talents anyway couldn’t be described as vocal. Min Min, 26, entertains men at the Royal, earning a basic wage of about 50,000 kyat (US $55) a month, nearly double her take-home pay when she worked at a Rangoon garment factory. For four years she headed the factory’s packing department, until the garment industry was thrown into disarray by America’s introduction of sanctions on imports from Burma. US sanctions resulted in the closure of many garment factories and young women like Min Min turned to the sex trade and the entertainment scene for alternative employment. [Source: Ko Jay, The Irrawaddy, April 27, 2006 <>]

“Min Min ingenuously thought a karaoke bar job would help her achieve her true ambition—“I wanted to be a famous singer.” But her male audience was always more interested in her physical attributes than in her voice. The hands she hoped would be applauding her performance were otherwise occupied. “It’s like working in a brothel,” she concedes. “Most customers caress me. If I refuse, they will find another girl.” But she’s tied to the job now, dependent on the money, much of which goes to support her family. <>

“The Royal charges between $5 and $8 an hour for the use of a karaoke room, so it’s no surprise to learn that most of its customers are well-heeled businessmen. “They don’t care,” says Ko Naing. “They only want to relax with beautiful girls.” <>

“Linn Linn, a 31-year-old widow with two children to support, has worked at several karaoke clubs, one of which, she says, was owned by a senior police officer and five businessmen. Club owners often invite government officials along for some “relaxation,” she claims. Linn Linn worked in a Rangoon brothel until a 2002 police crackdown on prostitution. Since then she has been employed by a string of karaoke bars, conceding that sex as well as songs are on the menu. <>

“About 50 karaoke girls were arrested in a second police crackdown, in 2003, on nightclubs suspected of doubling as brothels. Linn Linn escaped arrest, but she admits it might be only a matter of time before the next police raid puts her out of work. “What else can I do?” she says. “I have two children to support. Everything is so expensive now and the cost of living just rises and rises. I’ve no other way to make money other than continue in the karaoke trade.” <>

“Regime officials and members of Military Intelligence were deeply involved in the entertainment business until the shake-up that spelled MI’s end and the demise of intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt and his cronies. Some ceasefire groups were also involved in the business, Ko Naing claims. Add to them the growing number of greedy officials who also wanted some of the action and the karaoke scene becomes very murky indeed. <>

Life of Sex Workers in Myanmar

Aung Thet Wine wrote in The Irrawaddy, “I rented Room 21,and once inside the young woman introduced herself as Mya Wai. For the next hour or so we talked about her life and her job. “There are three of us in my family. The other two are my mother and younger brother. My father passed away a long time ago. My mother is bedridden and my brother is also sick. I have to work in this business to support my family,” she told me. She had not come to Rangoon to escape the aftermath of the cyclone, she said, but lived near the night market of Rangoon’s Kyeemyindaing Township. Mya Wai described vividly the daily struggle to survive—“I need to make at least 10,000 kyat ($8.50) a day to cover the family food bill, medicines and travel costs.” [Source: Aung Thet Wine, The Irrawaddy, July 15, 2008 *]

“She started out at the age of 16 working in a karaoke bar and took up full-time prostitution about one year later. “My job in the karaoke bar was to sit with the customers, pour their drinks and sing along with them. Sure, they would touch me, but I had to tolerate that.” She earned a basic monthly salary of 15,000 kyat ($12.50), plus a share of the tips and an additional 400 kyat (33 cents) an hour when entertaining a customer. It wasn’t enough to support herself and her family, so she moved to a massage parlor on War Dan Street in Rangoon’s Lanmadaw Township. *

“A couple of days after I started work there, the owner sent me to a hotel, saying I could earn 30,000 kyat ($22.50) from a customer there.” She was still a virgin and described that experience as “my first night in hell.” Her client was Chinese, a man in his 40s with sexual demands that were strange and painful for young Mya Wai. “He treated me like an animal,” she said. “I couldn’t walk properly for one week. But I’m used to all that now.” *

Mon Mon Myat of IPS wrote: “When Aye Aye (not her real name) leaves her youngest son at home each night, she tells him that she has to work selling snacks. But what Aye actually sells is sex so that her 12-year-old son, a Grade 7 student, can finish his education. “Every night I work with the intention of giving my son some money the next morning before he goes to school,” said Aye, 51. She has three other older children, all of whom are married. Her 38-year-old friend Pan Phyu, also a sex worker, has a greater burden. After her husband died, she takes care of three children – apart from her mother and uncle. [Source: Mon Mon Myat, IPS, February 24, 2010 ><]

“But Aye and Phyu’s source of income is fast declining, because it is no longer that easy to get clients at their age. There are fewer opportunities available for Aye and Phyu in the nightclubs in downtown Rangoon, but they found a place near the highway in the city outskirts. “I’m already having a hard time finding even just one client a night, yet some clients want to use me for free. Sometimes they cheat me and go without paying,” Aye said with a sigh. Their clients vary, ranging from college students, policemen, business people, taxi drivers or trishaw drivers. “It’s true that sometimes we get no money but just pain,” Phyu added. ><

“Aye and Phyu say they remain in sex work because that is the only job they know that can bring them enough money. “I tried to work as a street vendor, but it didn’t work because I didn’t have enough money to invest,” Aye said. Aye earns from 2,000 to 5,000 kyat (2 to 5 U.S. dollars) for a one-hour session with a client, an amount she would never earn as a food vendor even if she works the whole day. ><

“Aye leaves home to go to work as soon as her son falls asleep at night. She worries about earning enough money, and what will happen to her son if she does not. “If I have no client tonight, I will have to go to the pawnshop tomorrow morning (to sell items),” she said. Showing her one-foot-long hair, Aye added: “If I have nothing left, I’d have to sell my hair. It could probably be worth about 7,000 kyat (7 dollars).” ><

Risks and Abuse Faced by Myanmar Sex Workers

Mon Mon Myat of IPS wrote: “Aye and Phyu’s daily lives are marked by living with the risks that come with being in illegal work, ranging from abuse from clients and police harassment, to worrying about getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. Many clients think that they can easily abuse commercial sex workers because they have little clout in an illegal area of work. “Sometimes I receive money for one client but I have to serve three clients. I would be beaten up if I refuse or speak up,” said Phyu, who has been a sex worker for 14 years. “If the local official in my ward or my neighbours don’t like me, they could inform the police who could arrest me anytime for trading sex,” Aye added. To keep from being harassed by the police, Aye and Phyu say they have to either give money or sex. “The police want money or sex from us. We need to make friends with them. If we can’t give a bribe we are threatened with arrest.” [Source: Mon Mon Myat, IPS, February 24, 2010 ><]

“Phyu said, “Some clients came in plain clothes, but through the conversation, I later knew that some of them are police officials.” A few years ago, Aye and Phyu were arrested when the police raided the hotel they were in under the Brothel Suppression Act. Aye spent a month in a Rangoon jail after paying a bribe. Phyu could not afford to pay, so she spent one year in jail. ><

“Like many commercial sex workers, getting infected with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases is never far from their minds. Aye recalls that two years ago, she suspected that she might have HIV. A blood test at the Tha Zin clinic, which provides free HIV testing and counselling service for CSWs, confirmed her worst fears. “I was shocked and lost consciousness,” Aye said. But Phyu said calmly, “I already expected to have HIV infection as I’ve seen friends of mine dying from AIDS-related diseases. “My doctor told me that I can live normally as my CD4 counts are above 800,” she added, referring to count of white blood cells that fights infection and indicates the stage of HIV or AIDS. ><

Because she has HIV, Aye carries a condom in her bag as suggested by the doctor from the Tha Zin clinic. But her clients are stubborn and refuse to use any protection, she said. “It’s even harder to convince them to use a condom when they are drunk. I was often beaten up for urging them to use a condom,” Aye pointed out. Htay, a doctor who asked that his full name not be disclosed, says he has heard a similar story from a sex worker who comes to see him. “Every month we provide a box of free condoms to sex workers, but their number does not get reduced by much when we checked the box again. The reason she (sex worker patient) gave me was that her clients did not want to use a condom. That’s a problem,” said Htay, who provides community health care for people with living with HIV. ><

Prostitution and HIV-AIDS in Myanmar

AIDS is believed to be have arrived in Myanmar with drug-addicted prostitutes from China In a pattern similar to Thailand, transmission of the virus began through needle sharing by intravenous drug users and then spread by sexual contact among heterosexuals. Intravenous drug use formerly was a problem mainly in the northeast among ethnic minorities, but in the 1990s drug use spread to the lowlands and the urban areas inhabited by the Burmese majority. Many men in Myanmar have gotten HIV-AIDS from Burmese women who sold and made into prostitutes in Thailand, where they were infected with the H.I.V. virus, which the brought to Myanmar when they returned home. The HIV rate among prostitutes in Myanmar leapt from 4 percent in 1992 to 18 percent in 1995.

Sex workers generally do not have access to condoms and basic medical care. Mon Mon Myat of IPS wrote: “According to a 2008 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), more than 18 percent of some 240,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Burma are female sex workers. HIV-positive sex workers are a hidden reality in Burma. “Our society covers up the truth that prostitution exists because of shame and fear of sin, but it actually makes the situation worse,” pointed out Htay. “I think a network of commercial sex workers needs to be set up in this country,” said Nay Lin of Phoenix Association, a group that provides moral support and vocational training for people living with HIV/AIDS. “Through that they could stand for their rights and protect their communities.” Just like others, commercial sex workers who are mothers earn money in exchange for sex to support their children and their families, but they always work under fear of the police and of being abused by clients,” Lin said. “We should respect them as mothers instead of abusing them.” [Source: Mon Mon Myat, IPS, February 24, 2010]

Fashion Shows and Prostitution in Myanmar

At a fashion show at a bar in Mandalay, men in the audience pass flowers to the women they want. Some regard these events as thinly veiled prostitute markets. Similar things go on in Yangon and perhaps other cities too.

Chris O’Connell wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Prostitution is dressed-up and paraded in the nightclubs of Rangoon. An old elevator door creaks open and seven women walk through the rooftop restaurant cum nightclub on a wet Friday night in Rangoon. A few wear long shiny red raincoats and sunglasses, others have fedoras tilted to hide their eyes, and some walk with children by their side. Despite the urbane camouflage it’s easy to see the women are all tall, thin and gorgeous. They move quickly towards the dressing rooms backstage, past tables of middle-aged men drinking glasses of Myanmar Beer and a woman singing John Denver’s "Take Me Home, Country Roads" over the deafening roar of a synthesizer. [Source: Chris O’Connell, The Irrawaddy, December 6, 2003 ::]

“Within minutes the music dies down, stage lights flash on and the seven women appear onstage to the first few strains of a Brittany Spears tune. The men in the crowd clap, cheer and ogle as the ladies strut in tight-fitting slinky black and white bell-bottomed outfits. Then the lights go out. The show comes to a grinding halt as Brittany’s voice warps from a high-pitch to a slow groan. It’s nothing new; blackouts aren’t rare in Rangoon. Everyone is used to it. The men sip their beer patiently in the dark, the women regroup, the waiters rush for candles, and it seems like the only light in the city is the far-off glow of Shwedagon Pagoda. After a few minutes, the backup generators kick-in and the show rolls on. ::

“This is nightlife Burmese-style, where the electricity is spotty and the beer costs 200 kyat (US 20 cents). Known to many as "fashion shows", this peculiar merging of club act and beauty pageant is a popular nighttime diversion for the wealthy and well-connected. In notoriously inhibited Burma, a land where kissing is seldom seen on film, these fashion shows are exceptionally risqu?. But they have fast become part of life here in downtown Rangoon. As one advertising executive in the capital put it, the shows have become almost as ubiquitous as Buddhism. "When we are worried or sad, we go to the pagoda," he explains. "When we are happy, we sing karaoke and we watch fashion shows." ::

“While fashion shows may seem innocent enough, women who work in them occupy a shady area that blurs the boundaries between prostitution and performance. Much like the geishas of Japan, men pay for their company. The women are adept at laughing at the jokes of their patrons, and usually have the choice of taking the relationship further later in the night. But some dancers say they are pressured by their managers to bring in a certain amount of money every night and this, more often than not, means having sex with men for cash. The scene at the Zero Zone nightclub on the roof of Theingyi Market would have been almost unimaginable just seven years ago. With strict curfews, and a ban on nightclubs and performances, people looking to party or go out on the town in Rangoon had few alternatives beyond roadside teashops and private get-togethers. In 1996, the curfew was lifted and the ban on nighttime entertainment was rolled back. ::

“Fashion shows have since led the way for this nighttime revival. Groups of women move from nightclub to nightclub to parade the catwalk to the Western pop tunes of Christina Aguilera and Pink. Wealthy men with business and military connections jeer the performers on, and aside from those on stage, there are virtually no women to be seen. The seven dancers in bell-bottoms are first on the bill at Zero Zone. Their routine is half music-video choreography, half basketball drill. Weaving in and out, the ladies parade towards the end of the catwalk, where there’s a practiced pause at the edge. With an all-too-common slouch, the kind that every fashion model from New York to Paris has refined, the women put their hands on their hips and make eye contact with as many men as possible. The models turn their shoulders, snap their heads and strut back to the line-up. As the men in the crowd warm to the act, they call on waiters to give the women wreaths of fake flowers to hang around their necks. Some of the women are crowned with tiaras or wrapped in pageant banners that read "love you" and "kissing" and "beauty." ::

Girls Who Work the Fashion Shows in Yangon

Chris O’Connell wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Competition among the women is fierce. They scan the room for their suitor and smile with satisfaction when the garlands come. For the price of a chain of plastic flowers—as little as one dollar and as much as ten—men can buy the brief company of any one of the women on stage. After the act, which lasts for about four songs, the ladies span out and sit next to the men who selected them. They chat, laugh and, depending on the woman’s whim, arrange for more expensive liaisons later in the night. The groups themselves operate like dance companies with their own choreographers, seamstresses and managers. Even though most split the money between their managers and the club, the performers take home sums of money unheard of in one of Asia’s poorest countries. [Source: Chris O’Connell, The Irrawaddy, December 6, 2003 ::]

“In Rangoon, where the official salary for civil servants peaks at about $30 a month and doctors at public hospitals earn much less, women on the fashion show circuit can earn as much as $500 a month. "Sarah," a member of a group that regularly performs at several Rangoon nightspots says that she would rather be doing other things with herself, but that the faltering Burmese economy doesn’t leave her much choice. Work at the fashion shows is the least stressful and the most lucrative option, she says. "I want to be an actress," says a slender dancer after finishing a set in another nearby club. "But there is nowhere to study and there are no jobs, so this is good for now." ::

“A dancer with straight, jet-black hair says this is her first month on the job. She admits that she doesn’t earn as much as some of the girls who’ve been in the group longer. "They have regular customers. My manager always tells me to smile more, to be more aggressive so we can make more money," she says. The Zero Zone is considered one of the nicer spots in town and the fashion show troupes move on to other dingier clubs during the night. With high rates of unemployment and a banking crisis plaguing the Burmese economy, Burma’s military rulers have either stopped enforcing laws against black-market trade like prostitution or have turned a blind eye altogether. Several sources in Rangoon say there has been an increase in the number of women who work as prostitutes throughout the country. ::

“After dark, the streets around Theingyi Market form the city’s main nightclub district. Across the street sit Emperor and Shanghai, two indoor clubs which teem with women who moonlight as prostitutes to earn extra money. A woman at Shanghai who is not in a fashion show troupe but works independently says she occasionally goes to nightclubs to try and make extra money for her family. "My husband doesn’t have a job," said the woman who gave her name as Mimi. "So sometimes I come here to earn some money. He might know what I’m doing, but he never asks." For all their popularity, there are still people who find Rangoon’s fashion shows tacky and disrespectful to women. A prominent video director in the capital says that while many of his friends like to go to the shows, he can’t stand them. "It’s bad for women’s culture. They become objects. They get used to being bought and sold," he says. A Rangoon writer says the fashion shows are a clear example of the hybrid form of entertainment that emerged in Burma after the ban on nightclubs was lifted. Because of their lack of contact with the outside world, businessmen in Burma don’t know any better way to have fun, she explains. "They stay in their shop or office all day long and when they are done they want to relax. Fashion shows are the only way they know how." ::

Turning Tricks at a Myanmar Truck Stop

Some poor country girls survive by turning tricks with truck drivers doing the lonely overnight run between Mandalay and Taunggyi, Ko Htwe wrote in The Irrawaddy: “The highway from Taunggyi to Mandalay is long, smooth and straight, but there are many distractions along the way. Cafés, karaoke clubs and gas stations all compete for the attention of truck drivers who make the overnight haul, carrying fruit, vegetables, furniture and other products from Shan State to Burma’s second largest city. Occasionally, the truck drivers encounter a flash of torchlight ahead in the darkness. They know this means one of two things: either the police have set up a roadblock to hustle them out of a few kyat, or a sex worker is waiting for a truck driver to pick her up. [Source: Ko Htwe, The Irrawaddy, July 2009 ++]

“Because of the heat, the traffic and the frequency of roadblocks, most truck drivers travel by night. ...We hit the road at sunset and headed out of Mandalay. Within no time it was dark, and the city was far behind us. The landscape was flat and dotted with trees, bushes and small hamlets. Suddenly, like a firefly twinkling in the night, I saw a torchlight flashing at us from the roadside about 100 meters ahead. “That’s the signal of a sex worker,” said my friend. “If you want to pick her up, you just reply by signaling with your headlights and then pull over.” We could see her face in the lights as we passed. She looked young. Her face was thick with make-up. ++

“Roadside sex workers usually ask for between 2,000 and 4,000 kyat ($2-4), my friend explained. “So if you take them with you, how do you get them back?” I asked. He looked at me as if I had just asked a stupid question, then smiled. “There are so many trucks heading in both directions, she just hitches back with another client,” he said. He told me that drivers who take sex workers signal to other drivers with their headlights if they have a girl going in the opposite direction. They pass the girls on from truck to truck this way all through the night. ++

“He told me that most of the sex workers are girls from poor villages along the highway who cannot find any other job. These days, more and more university students are working the highway to make enough to pay for their studies. The driver said the number of roadside sex workers has increased considerably over the past few years. “Do authorities know about it?” I asked. “The police either ignore it or take advantage of the girls themselves,” he said. “Sometimes they refuse to pay or ask for a discount. The girls are afraid that if they refuse they will be arrested.” ++

“Our first rest stop was at Shwe Taung, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Mandalay. It was late, but one restaurant was open. We went in and ordered something to eat. When the waiter came to our table with our food, my friend whispered one word to him: “Shilar?” (“Do you have it?”) “Shide,” the waiter replied without blinking: “Sure, we have it.” He told us that it would cost 4,000 kyat for a “short time.”The waiter led us from the shop to a walled compound next door. There was no roof except the stars in the sky. He called to a girl sleeping on a wooden bed, using her longyi as a blanket. She woke up and looked at us. Although she was obviously dead tired, she immediately got up and combed her hair. She put a wide smear of lipstick on her mouth. Her bright red lips contrasted sharply with her ragged appearance and the dull, pungent room.“Is she the only one?” my friend asked. “For the time being, yes,” said the waiter impatiently. “The other girls didn’t show up tonight.” ++

“Where do they sleep?” I asked. “Just here,” the girl said, pointing at the wooden bed. “Do you have condoms?” I asked her. “No. That’s up to you,” she said with a shrug. My friend and I looked at the girl, not knowing what to say. “You are my first customer tonight,” she said unconvincingly. We apologized and sheepishly retreated out the door. As we walked away, I looked back at the house. Through the gaping holes in the brick wall I saw the girl lie down on the bed and pull her longyi up to her chin. Then she curled up and went back to sleep.

Burmese Prostitutes in Thailand

Neil Lawrence wrote in The Irrawaddy, “According to figures cited in a recent study by anthropologist David A. Feingold, there are as many as 30,000 Burmese commercial sex workers in Thailand, a number believed to be "growing by some 10,000 per year." As illegal migrants, women from Burma generally occupy the lowest rungs of the Thai sex industry. Many are confined to their brothels, with little power to insist that customers use condoms, even if they are aware of the risks of unprotected sex. But with the AIDS scare creating a strong demand for supposedly low-risk virgins, pre-adolescent girls from Burma are commanding as much as 30,000 baht (US$700) from businessmen willing to pay for the privilege of dispensing with precautions or to "cure" themselves of the disease.[Source: Neil Lawrence, The Irrawaddy, June 3, 2003 ^]

“Once deflowered, however, their market value plummets, and they are "recycled" to service ordinary customers for as little as 150 baht ($3.50) for a short session. "We are just illegals here," says Noi, a 17-year-old Shan girl working at a karaoke bar in Mae Sai. "We must pay the police 1,500 baht ($35) a month and can’t keep much money. We don’t trust the Thais, so many girls try to go back to Tachilek." But a debt to their "managers" in Thailand, who usually pay several times what brokers gave the girls’ parents inside Burma, prevents most from leaving. Still others, she adds, incur a further debt to pay for a police "escort" to take them to one of the major sex centers in Chiang Mai, Bangkok or Pattaya, where earnings are greater. ^

“In Ranong, where a major crackdown in 1993 loosened the grip of exploitative brothel operators, conditions are different, although not altogether better. Raids on three notorious brothels in July 1993 resulted in 148 Burmese prostitutes being deported to Kawthaung, where they were arrested and sentenced to three years’ hard labor, while the owners escaped prosecution in Thailand. Since then, however, sex workers say they are better treated. "I enjoy more freedom now," says Thida Oo, who was 13 when she was sold to the Wida brothel in Ranong in 1991. She later tried to escape, only to be recaptured in Kawthaung and sold to another brothel in Ranong. "I can go anywhere freely now, as long as I don’t have any debt to repay." ^

“Despite this improvement, however, sex workers and health officials in Ranong say that nearly nine out of ten customers—mostly Burmese fishermen, including ethnic Mons and Burmans—refuse to use condoms. The incidence of HIV/AIDS among local sex workers is estimated to be around 24 percent, down slightly from 26 percent in 1999. Elsewhere, condom use varies significantly according to nationality and ethnicity. In Mae Sot, opposite Karen State, 90 percent of Thai customers use condoms, compared to just 30 percent of Karens from inside Burma, and 70 percent of Karens residing in Thailand. ^

Crackdowns on Burmese migrants in Thailand have pushed many women into the flesh trade. Kevin R. Manning wrote in The Irrawaddy, “When 22-year-old Sandar Kyaw first arrived in Thailand from Burma, she worked 12-hour days, sewing clothing in one of the many garment factories around the border town of Mae Sot. Now she sits in a hot, dimly lit room in a brothel, watching TV with her co-workers, and waiting for a man to pay 500 baht (US $12.50) for one hour of sex with her. With six younger siblings and her parents struggling to make ends meet in Rangoon, making money is her main priority. "I want to save 10,000 baht and go home," she says. Since factory wages for illegal Burmese migrants average roughly 2,000 baht per month, saving such a sum on her sewing wages would have taken months. When her friend suggested they leave the factory for the more lucrative brothel, Sandar Kyaw agreed. Since she retains half her hourly fee, just one customer a day can net her three times her factory wage." [Source:Kevin R. Manning, The Irrawaddy, December 6, 2003]

See Thailand

Burmese Prostitutes on the Thai-Myanmar border

Neil Lawrence wrote in The Irrawaddy, “The flesh trade is flourishing along the Thai-Burma border, where the wages of cheap sex are adding to the toll taken by decades of poverty and military conflict. Tachilek, a border town in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle, has a reputation for many things, few of them good. Most recently in the media spotlight as the center of a pitched battle between Thai, Burmese and ethnic insurgent forces that has claimed lives on both sides of the border, Tachilek is best known as a major conduit for opium and methamphetamines flowing out of Burma. It also has a Thai-owned casino and a thriving black market in everything from pirated VCDs to tiger skins and Burmese antiques.[Source: Neil Lawrence, The Irrawaddy, June 3, 2003 ^]

“But stroll across the Friendship Bridge from Mae Sai, Thailand, and would-be guides will waste no time making sure you don’t miss the main attraction. "Phuying, phuying," they whisper in Thai, clutching photos of Tachilek’s very own Shwedagon pagoda and other local sights. "Phuying, suay maak," they repeat: "Girls, very beautiful." With an estimated two-thirds of Burma’s wealth coming from illicit sources, it is impossible to quantify the contribution of the world’s oldest profession to keeping one of the world’s poorest nations afloat. But visit any border town along the 1,400-km frontier between Burma and Thailand, and you’ll find countless places where Thais, Burmese and foreigners alike come to make love, not war. ^

"There are a great number of prostitutes going back and forth between the border towns for sex work," says one physician working for the international aid agency World Vision in the Thai port city of Ranong, opposite Kawthaung at Burma’s southernmost point. "There is at least 30 percent sex-worker mobility crossing the line," he adds, highlighting the porous nature of the border that divides the two countries. The consequences of this high level of mobility—greatly facilitated by an extensive human trafficking network that relies heavily on the cooperation of corrupt officials on both sides of the border—have added immeasurably to the ravages of decades of poverty and endemic conflict in military-run Burma. ^

“Deepening poverty in the context of a more open economy has drawn a growing number of Burmese women into commercial sex work, both at home and abroad. In 1998, ten years after the country emerged from decades of economic isolation, the ruling military regime tacitly acknowledged this growth by introducing stiffer sentences for convicted offenders of the 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act. The results, however, have been negligible: "Whole towns are now known primarily for their sex business," claimed one source who has worked with the United Nations Development Program on a survey of HIV/AIDS awareness in northern Burma’s Shan State. ^

"Customers are mostly truck drivers, carrying goods—and AIDS—from Thailand and China." With the balance of legitimate trade working heavily in Thailand’s favor, Burmese women have become an increasingly important commodity for export. Given the growing value of this trade, efforts to stem the flow of women destined for the international sex market have been predictably ineffectual: In a rare move, the regime decided in 1996 to limit the number of passports issued to female citizens after a troupe of cultural performers with connections to leading generals were duped into working as bar girls in Japan. But restricting, rather than protecting, the rights of women has done little to prevent thousands being trafficked into Thailand’s massive sex industry—estimated by Chulalongkorn University economist Pasuk Phongpaichit to be worth more than the country’s illicit trade in drugs and arms combined.

Burmese Prostitutes on the Chinese border

Drawn by dreams of jobs, many Burmese women end up selling sex and doing drugs on the Chinese border. Than Aung wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Jiegao, a small thumb of land jutting into Burma from the Chinese side of the Sino-Burmese border, is an easy place to fall into a life of suffering. There are more than 20 brothels in this otherwise unremarkable border town, and most of the sex workers are from Burma. They come to find work in factories and restaurants or as maids, but soon discover that well-paid jobs are few and far between. In order to pay off debts and support themselves, many have little choice but to take up prostitution. [Source: Than Aung, The Irrawaddy, April 19, 2010 ==]

“The life of a migrant worker in China is precarious, and for those in the sex industry, the risks are all the greater. Although Burmese citizens can get three-month residency permits to live in Chinese towns along the border, prostitution is illegal in China, and sex workers live in constant fear of arrest. The price of freedom, if they are caught, is typically 500 yuan (US $73)—a lot of money for a prostitute charging 14 to 28 yuan ($2-4) a trick, or 150 yuan ($22) for a night with a customer, especially when you consider that at least half of this amount goes to the brothel’s owner. ==

“Most of the girls who work the brothels of Jiegao borrowed heavily to come here, so going back home empty-handed is not an option. Their parents expect them to send money, too. The sex workers generally come from families who can barely afford to feed their children, much less send them to school. In border areas, where armed conflict has long been a fact of life, the situation is even worse. That is why so many gamble everything they’ve got for an opportunity to go abroad. ==

“To cope with the stress and depression that comes with such a life, or to help them find the energy to get through a night with a customer, many sex workers turn to drugs. Scoring in Jiegao is no problem, because the Sino-Burmese border is a hotspot in the global narcotics trade. Heroin is widely available, but since it costs more than 100 yuan ($14.65) a hit, the more popular choice is ya ba, or methamphetamines, which are just one-tenth the price. Once a sex worker starts to use drugs regularly, it’s the beginning of the end. Addiction takes hold, and more and more of her income disappears in clouds of ya ba smoke. She stops sending money back to her family—her only connection to a normal life—and she becomes lost in a downward spiral.” ==

Homosexuality in Myanmar

Same-sex relations are criminalised under the nation's colonial penal code, and although it is not strictly enforced, activists say the law is still used by authorities to discriminate and extort. According to AFP: Totalitarian politics along with conservative religious and social values have conspired to encourage many gay people to keep their sexuality hidden in Myanmar. Attitudes contrast markedly from neighbouring Thailand, where a lively gay and transsexual scene is a largely accepted part of society, which - like Myanmar - is mainly Buddhist. [Source: AFP, May 17, 2012 >>]

“But dramatic political change since the reformist government of President Thein Sein came to power in 2011 is rippling out to wider society. Calling on the government to repeal laws criminalising gay sex, Aung Myo Min said taking part in an international event would empower Myanmar's gay population. "They will have more courage to reveal their sexuality," he said. "If we don't discriminate against them and respect that diversity, the world will be more beautiful than now." The past taboo on homosexuality in Myanmar has restricted awareness of sexual health among the gay population. In some areas, including Yangon and Mandalay, as many as 29 percent of men having sex with men are HIV positive, according to a 2010 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. >>

Transvestites known as “ladyboys” entertain Chinese tourists.

Nat Ka Daws (Transvestite Spirit Wives) and Irrawaddy River Spirit

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “In Burma, animism has developed into the cult of the Thirty-Seven Nats or spirits. Its spirit practitioners, known as nat ka daws, are almost always of ambiguous gender, and are thought to be married to a particular spirit or nat. Despite their physical appearance and costume, however, they may be heterosexual with a wife and family, heterosexual transvestites, or homosexual. Being a shaman is most often a well-respected profession because the shaman performs the functions of both a doctor and a minister, is often paid in gold or cash, and is often unmarried with the time and money to care for their aging parents. Shamans who combine their profession with prostitution lose the respect of their clients - a universal conflict and outcome. The reputation of Burmese nat-ka-daws has been generally damaged by this conflict. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic: “Numerous spirits live along the river, and worshipping them has become big business...I stop near a small village called Thar Yar Gone to witness a nat-pwe, or spirit festival. Inside a large thatch hut, musicians play loud, frenetic music before a crowd of rowdy onlookers. On the opposite end of the hut, on a raised stage, sit several wooden statues: nat, or spirit, effigies. I pass through the crowd and enter a space underneath the stage, where a beautiful woman introduces herself as Phyo Thet Pine. She is a nat-kadaw, literally a "spirit's wife"—a performer who is part psychic, part shaman. Only she isn't a woman—she is a he, a transvestite wearing bright red lipstick, expertly applied black eyeliner, and delicate puffs of powder on each cheek. Having traveled to the village by oxcart, smears of dirt covering my sweaty arms and face, I feel self-conscious before Pine's painstakingly created femininity. I smooth my hair and smile in apology at my appearance, shaking Pine's delicate, well-manicured hand. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006 <<]

“Nat-kadaws are more than just actors; they believe that the spirits actually enter their bodies and possess them. Each has an entirely different personality, requiring a change in costume, decorations, and props. Some of the spirits might be female, for whom the male nat-kadaw dons women's clothing; others, warriors or kings, require uniforms and weapons. To most Burmese, being born female rather than male is karmic punishment indicating grave transgressions in former lifetimes. Many Burmese women, when leaving offerings at temples, pray to be reincarnated as men. But to be born gay—that is viewed as the lowest form of human incarnation. Where this leaves Myanmar's gay men, psychologically, I can only imagine. It perhaps explains why so many become nat-kadaws. It allows them to assume a position of power and prestige in a society that would otherwise scorn them. <<

“Pine, who is head of his troupe, conveys a kind of regal confidence. His trunks are full of make-up and colorful costumes, making the space under the stage look like a movie star's dressing room. He became an official nat-kadaw, he says, when he was only 15. He spent his teenage years traveling around villages, performing. He went to Yangon's University of Culture, learning each of the dances of the 37 spirits. It took him nearly 20 years to master his craft. Now, at age 33, he commands his own troupe and makes 110 dollars for a two-day festival—a small fortune by Burmese standards. <<

Nat Ka Daw (Transvestite Spirit Wive) Ritual

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic: Pine, a ka daw, “outlines his eyes with eyeliner and draws an intricate mustache on his upper lip. "I'm preparing for Ko Gyi Kyaw," he says. It is the notorious gambling, drinking, fornicating spirit. The crowd, juiced on grain alcohol, hoots and shouts for Ko Gyi Kyaw to show himself. A male nat-kadaw in a tight green dress begins serenading the spirit. The musicians create a cacophony of sound. All at once, from beneath a corner of the stage, a wily-looking man with a mustache bursts out, wearing a white silk shirt and smoking a cigarette. The crowd roars its approval. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006 <<]

“Pine's body flows with the music, arms held aloft, hands snapping up and down. There is a controlled urgency to his movements, as if, at any moment, he might break into a frenzy. When he talks to the crowd in a deep bass voice, it sounds nothing like the man with whom I just spoke. "Do good things!" he admonishes the crowd, throwing money. People dive for the bills, a great mass of bodies pushing and tearing at each other. The melee ends as quickly as it had erupted, torn pieces of money lying like confetti on the ground. Ko Gyi Kyaw is gone. <<

“That was just the warm-up. The music reaches a feverish pitch when several performers emerge to announce the actual spirit possession ceremony. This time Pine seizes two women from the crowd—the wife of the hut's owner, Zaw, and her sister. He hands them a rope attached to a pole, ordering them to tug it. As the frightened women comply, they bare the whites of their eyes and begin shaking. Shocked as if with a jolt of energy, they start a panicked dance, twirling and colliding into members of the crowd. The women, seemingly oblivious to what they are doing, stomp to the spirit altar, each seizing a machete. <<

“The women wave the knives in the air, dancing only a few feet away from me. Just as I am considering my quickest route of escape, they collapse, sobbing and gasping. The nat-kadaws run to their aid, cradling them, and the women gaze with bewilderment at the crowd. Zaw's wife looks as if she had just woken from a dream. She says she doesn't remember what just happened. Her face looks haggard, her body lifeless. Someone leads her away. Pine explains that the women were possessed by two spirits, ancestral guardians who will now provide the household with protection in the future. Zaw, as the house owner, brings out two of his children to "offer" to the spirits, and Pine says a prayer for their happiness. The ceremony ends with an entreaty to the Buddha. <<

“Pine goes under the stage to change and reappears in a black T-shirt, his long hair tied back, and begins to pack his things. The drunken crowd mocks him with catcalls, but Pine looks unfazed. I wonder who pities whom. The next day he and his dancers will have left Thar Yar Gone, a small fortune in their pockets. Meanwhile, the people in this village will be back to finding ways to survive along the river. <<

Myanmar Holds First Gay Pride Celebrations

In May 2012, AFP reported: “Myanmar held its first gay pride celebrations, organisers said. Around 400 people packed into the ballroom of a Yangon hotel for an evening of performances, speeches and music to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Trans-phobia, an AFP reporter said. "I'm very happy to be with the same group of people," gay make-up artist Min-Min told AFP. "In the past we didn't dare to do this. We've been preparing to hold this event for a long time... and today, finally it happens." [Source: AFP, May 17, 2012 >>]

Celebrations were due to take place in four cities across Myanmar, said Aung Myo Min, an organiser from the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. Unlike gay pride events in more liberal countries, there will be no parade. Instead, music, plays, documentaries and talks by authors were set to mark the occasions in Yangon, Mandalay, Kyaukpadaung and Monywa, Aung Myo Min said, adding that the events had been officially sanctioned. "In the past a crowd of people at this kind of event would be assumed to be against the government - taking part in something like a protest," he said. "Now LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) society has courage... and they dare to reveal their sexual orientation." >>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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