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Disposable People: Thailand, Part 1
Here’s more from Disposable People by Kevin Bales. This section was about Thailand. I’m going to post it in three sections over the next few days because it’s long. At the end of part three there are a specific things to pray for about human trafficking in Thailand.
Sex slavery in Thailand is the type of modern slavery that I’m most familiar with. (It happens in places other than Thailand, but much of this trafficking began in Thailand and spread to other places.) It’s perhaps the most horrifying to me, so I’ve done a bit more research on it. Several months ago I read Somaly Mam’s memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, about her time as an enslaved prostitute, her recovery, and her work rescuing other women. In Disposable People, Bales gives an in-depth analysis of this horrifying and mystifying problem. It is not a simple problem of cause and effect: it’s a web of causes, each complicated on its own, and a web of effects, both overtly and covertly devastating.
A little background on Thailand
Historically, Thailand has been a country rich in natural resources. While agriculturally based and somewhat primitive, Thais could easily grow enough rice and catch enough fish to meet their needs. The northern region became part of Thailand in the late 1800s. Its land is more mountainous and less usable than the south. It is also heavily influenced by Burmese culture. The generational poverty of the north contributed to parents viewing their children as commodities. Over generations of hunger and desperation, selling a child during hard times became and acceptable, though not preferable, practice. In the past children were sold as cooks or servants to richer families.
As Thailand, particularly in the south, has become more industrialized, the division between rich and poor has become greater. It has also brought an increased array of things to buy. Whereas the poor used to seek after food and shelter, they now covet TVs and cars. Because the culture has grown to accept selling daughters for need, it’s was a small step for selling daughters for want to be accepted.
A survey stated that of the parents in northern provinces who did sell their daughters, two-thirds could have afforded not to, but did in order to buy “color televisions and video equipment.” These horrifying results stem from a culture that has come to accept selling daughters as a way to create income. In more practical matters, Thailand does not have a welfare or health care system, so being able to earn a whole year’s wage for selling a daughter can entice parent’s to sell without evaluating the terrifying consequences of their choice.
Parents who sell their daughters to work in brothels usually aren’t deceived: they know what the future will hold for their daughters, at least in part. While it’s tempting to blame the evil of the parents, it’s really an indictment of a pervading culture in Thailand. The girls who are sold also know that they’ll be prostitutes, but when asked what being a prostitute means, many answer “wearing Western clothes in a restaurant.”
Most sex slaves in Thailand are working off debt: first debt to their parents, then debt to the slaveholders for food and shelter. In brothels, each prostitute is charged rent for her room. This debt begins as nearly insurmountable, then becomes even more so through exorbitant interest and arbitrary bookkeeping.
Buddhism, as practiced in most of Thailand, shapes a culture ripe for human trafficking. Women are viewed as lesser: unable to achieve enlightenment. Being a woman is seen as punishment for sins in a past life; women can hope to be reincarnated as men in their next lives. The rules for monks sanction prostitution and list ten different kinds of wives, the first being “those bought for money.” Bales sums up the Buddhist view of sex saying, “… there is no notion of sex as sin; instead, sex is seen as an attachment to the physical and natural world, the world of suffering and ignorance. The implication is that if you must have sex, have it as impersonally as possible.” Buddhism also teaches that people should accept and resign to pain and suffering in life since they are punishments for sins in an earlier life.
Prostitution is also encouraged by macho Thai culture (enabled by some Buddhist beliefs). A typical guys night out begins with drunkenness and ends in purchasing sex. It may not occur to many men to go against this cultural norm, and if it does by the time they’re drunk they may have forgotten their convictions. Or if a friend purchases everyone’s prostitutes for the evening, perhaps for a celebration, men may feel guilty for refusing the gift.
Thai women don’t forbid their husbands from seeing prostitutes: partly because social factors don’t give them that option, and partly because they’ve accepted the fact that their husbands will seek extramarital sex, and they prefer prostitutes to mistresses or second wives.
Sex tourism vs. sex slavery
Thailand has seen a boom is sex tourism in recent years. Most of the sex workers that are part of this moneymaker for the country are not slaves. They are certainly degraded, exploited, and influenced by poverty, but they aren’t slaves. They have chosen their work and retain a reasonable portion of their profits. However, this sex driven culture provides a ripe environment for human trafficking. As the demand for prostitutes, and more affordable prostitutes has grown, so has the sex trade.
All these factors make Thai culture a fertile ground for human trafficking.