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Thailand: Sex trafficking from Burma

Publish Date: 08 Nov 2004

Source: IPS/GIN
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Thailand:  Thai Police Alert for Sex Trafficking from Burma

CHIANG RAI, Thailand, (Nov. 8, 2004) IPS/GIN - Besides keeping a close watch for narcotics, the policemen who monitor the flow of vehicles from the Burmese border to this northern Thai town are on guard for a different type of merchandise -- women and girls being trafficked into a thriving sex industry.

On a recent evening, a long queue of cars, buses and vans inched their way along a highway to a check-point, where they were searched by six policemen and two sniffer dogs. The police officers went over the identification papers of the passengers and looked for any tell-tale signs of Burmese females being smuggled into Thailand by trafficking networks.

This check-point on an isolated stretch of road lined with shrubs and a thick growth of teak and mango trees is one of 13 positions being manned by the police in this part of northern Thailand as part of Bangkok's operation to combat the scourge of human trafficking.

"Crime gangs trafficking people or bringing in illegal immigrants prefer private vehicles," Sopon Muangfuang, a police lieutenant colonel who is part of the 36 strong force at the check-point, told IPS.

So far this year, Sopon's men have not saved a single trafficked victim. But his colleagues in nearby Mae Sai, the Thai town on the border with Burma, have made a breakthrough. They arrested four suspected traffickers, all Thai nationals, and rescued four female trafficking victims from Burma in September.

The police chief for this northern region admits that the challenge is daunting, given that there are over 160 points of entry along the 1,165 kilometer Thai-Burmese border in the nine provinces under his command.

"The police know of five to six criminal networks operating in the area. Even government officials are involved," says Police Commissioner Panupong Singhara na Ayuddhaya. "We have a specially trained force to handle trafficking cases."

Such a drive to crackdown on human trafficking is expected to intensify in the wake of an unprecedented agreement signed by the six countries that share the Mekong River to mount a multilateral effort against the crime syndicates profiting from this modern form of slavery.

On Oct. 29, the governments from the six countries - Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to create a regional network aimed at sharing information among the various police forces to arrest the traffickers and assist the victims.

"This is a first in Asia, and the best way to counter trafficking, since it involves more than two countries," Kitiya Phornsadja, child protection officer at the Thai office of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IPS.

The deal comes after almost six years of campaigning by child rights activists. It also represents a victory for advocates who have lobbied governments to endorse 10-point agenda to stop the scourge of commercial sexual exploitation of children that emerged from an international conference in Yokohama, Japan, in 2001. The call to implement MoUs on cross-border trafficking of children was one of them.

That this northern town has a catapulted to the frontlines of this battle against trafficking is with reason.. It shares a vast area in this rural part of Thailand that has been identified as supplying women and girls to the regional trafficking networks.

It is also a place frequented by women from neighbouring Burma, Laos and even southern China. The northern provinces are also reputed for being a transit point for non-Thai women to pass through on their way to the flesh markets in Bangkok or other Asian capitals.

According to Ben Svasti, programme coordinator of TRAFCORD, an anti-trafficking body in northern Thailand, Mai Sai remains a main route for traffickers to bring in victims who are either Burmans or Shan ethnic minorities - both groups living under a brutal military dictatorship in neighbouring Burma.

"Women and girls trafficked for commercial sex work are the main cases reported, because the places they work are open and need customers," he said. "But there are large number of victims trafficked to work on farms along the border and as domestic labour."

Government officials in the neighbouring province of Chiang Mai revealed that customers in Thailand pay up to 30,000 baht (750 U.S. dollars) to have sex with a virgin from Burma. The girls are available in places like karaoke bars and massage parlours and not limited to brothels like before, said Prinya Panthong, Chiang Mai's vice governor for security.

TRAFCORD has rescued 51 girls and women over the past two years, state Chiang Mai officials. In 2000, 26 women and nine trafficked victims were saved from the sex industry and in 2001, 26 women and 16 girls were saved.

Such numbers are only a fraction of the poor and economically vulnerable women and girls trafficked into the sex trade across the world. Reports by the U.S. government, for instance, reveal that close to two million children, some as young as five years old, are trapped in the global child-sex trade.

And studies done by the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) state that the number of women and children trafficked in South-east Asia could be about 225,000 out of a global figure of more than 700,000.

"Breaking this network will depend on the governments implementing the MoU they signed," says UNICEF's Kitiya. "They have to act collectively to fight this."

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