rangoon – This is a side of life the Burmese military junta might prefer you didn’t see: Girls who appear to be 13 and 14 years old paraded in front of customers at a nightclub where a “beauty contest” thinly veils child prostitution.
Tottering in stiletto heels and short mini skirts, young teenage girls crisscrossed the dance-floor as part of a nightly “modeling” show at the Asia Entertainment City nightclub on a recent evening in Rangoon.
Some girls stared at the floor while others tugged self-consciously on short hemlines, stretching flimsy material a few centimeters longer as they catwalked awkwardly to the accompaniment of blasting hip-hop music.
Watching these young entertainers of the “Cherry-Sexy Girls” and “White Lady” model groups were a few male customers, and a far larger crowd of Burmese sex workers, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, who sat at low tables in the darkness of the club.
Escorting several girls to a nearby table of young men, a waiter said the show was not so much modeling as marketing.
“All the models are available,” the waiter said, adding that the youngest girls ask $100 to spend a night with a customer, while the older girls and young women in the audience could be bargained down for a lot less.
Some of the younger girls’ “mothers,” would conduct the negotiations, the waiter said, gesturing toward several large women in their 50s who sat at the back of the club near the bar.
Though prostitution, particularly involving children, is a serious crime in military-ruled Burma, girls taken from the club would have no problem with the police or hotel managers, the waiter assured but did not explain.
As the girls left the club’s dance-floor stage, those that had been presented with garlands of flowers by men in the audience joined their admirers at their seats. Others fled backstage and changed into less revealing attire before exiting the club.
Several young women in the audience made their last offers, $40 to spend a night, before they too left as Ragoon’s 10 pm curfew neared.
Accurate information on internal trafficking in Burma is “very limited…as many NGOs and organizations can not conduct proper research within the country,” said Patchareeboon Sakulpitakphon at the Bangkok offices of the international organization ECPAT. The acronym stands for “End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes.”
As a result of these restrictions, knowledge of the child sex trade is limited to a “basic picture based on what victims have said and information that leaks out,” Patchareeboon wrote in an e-mail.
But, she added, the information available indicates that “[c]hild sex tourism is emerging in Burma as well as the development of the sex industry.”
What is common knowledge is that Burma is a major source country for people trafficked to the sex trade in regional and international hubs; and the country is on the bottom Tier 3 of the US State Department’s annual global trafficking in persons’ report.
“The military junta’s gross economic mismanagement, human rights abuses, and it policy of using forced labor are the top causal factors for Burma’s significant trafficking problem,” the State Department noted in its June 2007 report.
“Burmese women and children are trafficked to Thailand, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Bangladesh, Malaysia, South Korea, and Macao for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labor,” the report added.
Disastrous economic policies pursued by the military since seizing power in 1962 have hobbled this resource rich nation, where the annual per capita income of the country’s approximately 52 million people is estimated to be just $220.
More than one million Burmese are believed to be working in Thailand, Physicians for Human Rights stated in a 2004 report, and of an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 undocumented migrants working in Thailand’s sex industry, the majority are Burmese.
“We cannot blame them. They must do that to survive,” said a Rangoon-based businessman, who said he could not condemn young women and girls with few prospects who turn to prostitution to survive.
Since the military struck peace deals in recent years with leaders of insurgencies in the Burma’s ethnic minority areas, drug money from the narco-producing Wa state entered Rangoon in the form of massage parlors and prostitution, he added.
A short drive from the Asia Entertainment City, Traders Hotel is a towering, modern building and latter-day landmark in downtown Rangoon. Several UN agencies have offices there.
On recent nights, however, a boisterous group of Burmese sex workers were trawling the hotel bar for customers.
Lin Lin, 22, and Thin Thin, 24, which are names commonly used by sex workers in Burma, said they didn’t normally work in hotel bars, but the 10pm curfew had shut down the late-night clubs and forced them to new venues to find customers.
With a mother, father and young brothers and sisters to support in Burma’s Shan State, Lin said that prostitution was not such a difficult choice.
“Sometimes I can earn $40 from one customer,” she explained, speaking in good English.
This was just her night job, she said, adding that she was in her second year of university studying to become “an advocate of the law.”
Her colleague, Thin Thin, said she was a hairdresser in her day job, but sleeping with men, particularly foreign tourists, paid far more than either could earn by legitimate work.
With one of the most serious HIV epidemics in Southeast Asia-an estimated 360,000 Burmese people were living with HIV at the end of 2005, according to UNAIDS-Thin Thin said she didn’t take chances and, giggling, pulled several condoms from the pocket of her faded jeans.
According to UNAIDS, one in three of Burma’s sex workers countrywide were infected with HIV in 2005. The Burmese ministry of health’s expenditure on HIV was estimated that year to be around $137,000, or less than half of $0.01 per infected person.
“The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief are not involved in Myanmar,” UNAIDS said. “Overall, overseas development assistance per capita in 2004 for Myanmar was US$2.4, compared with US$22 in Vietnam, US$35 in Cambodia, and US$47 in Lao People’s Democratic Republic.”
And now the outlook for ordinary Burmese people looks decidedly gloomier in the face of the military’s latest crackdown and the retaliatory promises of more sanctions against the junta from the US and the European Union. Japan has also announced that it will suspend humanitarian aid.
Several people spoken to in Rangoon said more sanctions will have little impact on the military elite, who have lived comfortably for decades and now have new sources of revenues from natural resource extraction contracts with China, France, India, and Thailand-to name but a few.
ECPAT’s Patchareeboon said further sanctions on Burma “will have a direct impact on children who are already vulnerable, increasing their risk significantly.”
The Burmese regime has, at least, joined the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking-known as the COMMIT Process, she said, and Burmese media have reported on the arrests of traffickers and the stiff jail sentences they receive.
So what is shielding the trade in young girls that takes place behind the flimsy facade of “modeling” shows in Rangoon from the military regime’s wrath?
The answer is as simple as it is obvious, according to Patchareeboon: money.
“I am sure that [the military] has officials making profit from the growing sex industry and trafficking of Burmese citizens abroad,” she said.
“Corruption and the institutionalization of the sex industry is common.”