Tainted by a sordid tradition
For Note, a 42-year-old freelance journalist in northern Thailand, there's nothing bigger or more exciting than welcoming government officials from the central office in Bangkok. The officials visit for inspections, meeting with locals and talking to the local media. The trip is usually well organised from the moment they arrive until they leave the area.
Five-star hotels, the best local delicacies and private police escorts are included in the package whenever VIPs visit. But there's another "must try" item to cross off the list.
"I'm usually asked by the entourages of VIPs from Bangkok or anywhere to provide girls to entertain them. We as local journalists have no choice but to provide them since it's our obligation to make them happy," Note said.
"I know it sounds bad but it's the tradition that we have done in the past. Unfortunately it is still carried on."
A case that recently came to light in Mae Hong Son created a new phenomenon among many activists, NGOs and lawmakers. Even though prostitution and human trafficking are not new to Thailand, the old tradition of welcoming VIP guests that involves more than food and booze made many people question why such a tradition still exists.
Mae Hong Son has always been known for its charm. A border city surrounded by mountains and verdant scenery, Mae Hong Son is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the North. Even though it is not easy to get to, its unique culture and friendly folk draw many tourists.
Beside the irresistible charm of the city, a variety of ethnic groups in Mae Hong Son make the place even more exotic. The whole city tries to maintain the image of pure nature, cultural diversity and people full of moral awareness. But an incident that occurred in April made many people wonder if the city really is as good as they claim.
In April, a middle-aged woman brought her 19-year-old daughter to media attention, accusing Mae Hong Son governor Suebsak Iamwichan of buying sexual services from a minor. This was not the first time the mother had tried to bring this issue to public attention. In fact, she attempted to do so in November last year when she discovered that her daughter was part of a human trafficking operation in Mae Hong Son province.
The mother, who works as an undercover agent for the police's drug suppression unit, accidentally discovered a picture of her daughter in a catalogue of young girls offering sexual >> >> services in the locality. Overcoming her initial shock, she remained calm and tried to extricate her daughter from the operation.
"I asked a police officer to pretend to be a customer who wanted to use the service and specifically asked for my daughter. When she showed up in the room, she found me instead of the customer. She was embarrassed and ashamed but I told her I'm here to help. Then she started telling me how she got into this business," the mother told Spectrum through a social worker who helped her with the case from the beginning.
Due to the nature of her work, the mother is usually not at home to take care of her daughter. With no close supervision from her mother, the girl hung out with her friends. One of her friends asked her to try ya ba.
Her photo was taken while she was popping pills by her friend, who later used the photo to blackmail her if she didn't do what she asked. The girl was lured into prostitution when she was 17. She found it hard to leave due to fear of being exposed to the police and her mother.
According to the mother, Mae Hong Son has at least 11 well-known brothels, known as soom. Each soom has a different madam to oversee the girls. Although there are 11 brothels, all of them are taken care of by one person who is believed to be a police officer.
MAE HONG SON PHENOMENON
The mother took her daughter who was lured into the vice ring to report the incident to the police. However, that achieved nothing.
She then reported the incident to the Dam Rong Tham Centre, set up as a regional complaint centre for anyone to file a report when they cannot get justice. The centre decided to investigate her complaint.
As the mother had fingered the governor as one of the underage sex trade's customers, they started to question him. But he denied any involvement with the girl or using sex services. The Dam Rong Tham Centre concluded the case as being a misunderstanding between the two parties and decided to drop it.
The mother didn't give up since she wanted justice for her daughter and every girl caught up in the operation. She finally got two other girls, aged 17 and 19, to help her with the case as the key witnesses. She also sought help from the anti-trafficking police division in Bangkok. But from January to March, there were no further developments.
As government officials and the judicial system failed to highlight the case, the mother decided the media was the only channel to get public attention. In April, she contacted a famous Facebook page called Mam Poh Dum and told them about the case. Mam Poh Dum then ran the story, which garnered a lot of media attention and led to the investigation that is still making the news.
"I have to thank the mother for her courage," said Ticha Na Nakorn, director of the Baan Kanjanapisek training centre for young offenders. "Human trafficking and underage prostitution are not something new to our society. The sad part is that no one has done anything to change the situation or solve the problem.
"We can't let this issue die down and disappear. It's a good opportunity for all of us to get together and work on this ongoing issue."
SORDID WELCOMING TRADITION
One of the issues that put this case in the spotlight is because the alleged sex service was part of the welcoming tradition for Mae Hong Son governor Suebsak Iamwichan when he was installed in office. Preliminary investigation shows that Suebsak was not involved in sex trade.
Mention the "welcoming tradition" or "serving dessert to the boss tradition" and everyone will know what you mean. Such a tradition is widely practised, especially among government officials to make sure they will be very well taken care of and they are able to work worry-free with the new boss.
Normally, the welcoming tradition involves a party boasting expensive food and alcohol. Girls are also part of the tradition to keep the new boss entertained. It can happen in any area, not just Mae Hong Son or northern Thailand. Since the tradition has been practised for a long time, no one has ever seen it as a problem -- until now.
Sanphasit Koompraphat, former committee member for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, told Spectrum no woman in rural areas that high-ranking officials visit or are newly stationed is safe from this practice.
"In the past, young female state schoolteachers in rural areas had to perform this duty for a high-ranking newcomer or visitor. It's all about power and money. The school will get the supporting budget if female teachers entertain government officials. It's an evil tradition from the past that persists until today," Sanphasit said.
However, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told the media that there is no such thing as the welcoming tradition in Thailand. He claimed such a tradition might be practised among other groups but not among government officials.
Pipad Krajaejun, a history lecturer at Thammasat University, said the welcoming tradition has never been officially documented. But he found evidence of a different kind of welcoming tradition in the diary of a missionary who visited northern Thailand.
In the 1930s, Chiang Mai was the centre of the Lanna kingdom. The ruler of Chiang Mai sent men from the Lua tribe to collect taxes from cities in the kingdom. Mae Hong Son was one of the Lanna kingdom's main cities. The chief ethnic group in Mae Hong Son were the Karen, who grew rice as their main agricultural produce. They had to submit 30% of their rice to the Lua tax collectors. Government officials from Chiang Mai then collected the grain from the Lua men.
"Whenever these Lua men came to collect the tax, they always acted superior and asked local people to treat them nicely. Local folk had to kill their chickens and pigs to feed these men. Some of the Lua men were decent but most merely sought to take as much as they could from the local people," Pipad explained.
The tradition of welcoming government officials in the old days involved plying them with plenty of food and drinks. Locals had to do anything to please the officials in order to curry favour with them. Offering girls to state officials wasn't part of the arrangement in old times.
There is no evidence indicating when offering girls for sex became part of the welcoming tradition. But Pipad believes such a practice started after the book titled 30 Nations in Chiang Rai was published in 1950.
One of the chapters mentioned Mida among the Akha ethic group. According to the book, the Mida is an experienced woman who taught young men how to have sex. In reality, however, Mida was just a position for a senior woman in the village and had nothing to do with sex.
"The media picked up that misunderstanding and propagated it over the years. That's how ethnic women in northern Thailand gained an exotic and erotic image. I believe this is how it all started," Pipad said.
Prakasit Mahasing, a former district chief of Mae Hong Son's Muang district, told Spectrum the welcoming tradition is a very common practice whenever a new government official is in town.
"When I first arrived, local people offered me young girls but I wasn't interested. I have a wife who I'm faithful to and I don't want to catch HIV, which is one of the biggest problems in the area," Prakasit said.
Shaladchai Ramitanond, a lecturer and founder of the Women's Study Centre at Chiang Mai University, explained that traditionally Mae Hong Son people believe females are lower than males. Females are the dirty gender born to serve karma for wrongdoings in their previous lives.
"In a male-dominated society like Mae Hong Son, women don't have much negotiating power. Since they believe that they were born to serve karma, the only way to escape from that karma is to have a son who can ordained. Sons are more valuable than daughters since they can take their parents to heaven by being ordained. The only way for daughters to show gratitude to their parents is to work and earn money for the parents," Shaladchai explained.
"It is still is forbidden for women to enter temples since they believe women are dirty, especially when they are on their period. But I think the real reason is that men don't want females to have access to education and become better or smarter than them. This cultural belief explains how all those girls were lured into human trafficking in the first place," he added.
Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, a lecturer in religion and philosophy, told Spectrum that ethnic groups in the North have a tradition of selling their daughters to people with authority and money such as police, military men, politicians and government officials.
"Tok keaw is the old practice that farmers used to exchange their agricultural produce for money. Normally they will do it when their produce such as rice or longan are still young and not ready to harvest. The tradition has changed from selling agricultural produce to human beings. Parents will offer their daughters for money," Sinchai explained.
"Selling daughters is very common among certain ethnic groups in the North. They don't see anything wrong with it since some believe the daughter was sold to a rich man merely to work. But almost all of the girls who are sold end up being the rich man's mistress or become involved in the sex industry. With their pale skin and beautiful appearance, ethnic women are more desirable than regular Thai women. Also the image of free sex and how easy it is to get ethnic girls make them an easy target for human trafficking and prostitution."
ethnic studies: Independent scholar Wisut Leksombun. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
After the girl and her two friends accused the governor, several police officers, teachers and government officials in Mae Hong Son of being clients of underage sex workers to the media and the police in Bangkok, they were not looked at the same way again.
While the nation has shown sympathy for these victims of one of the most controversial human trafficking networks in Thailand, locals are furious with them and blame them for exposing the governor and creating a negative image for Mae Hong Son.
A group of women condemned the action of the mother and the girls who alleged that Mae Hong Son was a hub of the flesh trade.
"The girls and the mother are now in Bangkok under the witness protection programme. My concern is how they will live after they return to the area. Their parents now face daily threats from local people who claim they have destroyed the good image of Mae Hong Son," said a social worker who wished to remain anonymous. She has worked for a private organisation dealing with women and children in the Mae Hong Son area for more than 17 years.
"These girls are the victims, they are not villains. They simply told the truth and I can confirm that Mae Hong Son has a lot of underage prostitutes. They are both Thai and ethnic girls. What makes the situation worse is that girls living in refugee camps are also selling themselves in exchange for money. How can they earn a living when there are not enough decent jobs in the area? When there is a lot of demand, the town never lacks supply."
Ticha of the Baan Kanjanapisek training centre thinks that local people who launched the witch hunt are distracting us from the real problem.
"They are trying to distract us. They miss the point that these girls have been lured to do something against their will. It's true that they sell their bodies for money willingly but I believe they would rather do something else if they could earn just as much money. Our society is sick and the ugly practice of selling daughters for money must stop," Ticha said.
"They are victims of this bad operation. We as adults have to help them with this problem. We must stop fooling ourselves that we don't have a prostitution problem in the area. We should now focus more on how to destroy the whole operation and let these kids be kids. They should be allowed to grow up as quality people."
Mae Hong Son's social structure pays more attention to males than females. Women are suppressed under the social structure where men lead. Wisut Leksombun, an independent scholar and researcher who has been studying ethnic groups in Mae Hong Son, told Spectrum that women, especially those in ethnic groups, have different views of gender and sexuality.
"Some ethnic groups such as the Lisu don't see virginity as that big a deal. What is more important to them is to pay gratitude to their parents and that means earning money to support their family. Many Lisu women go to Chiang Mai to work as sex workers. They have a large network that can help them move around easily within or out of the area," Wisut explained. "Their parents are fully aware of what they are doing but they don't mind as long as the money keeps coming in."
Money is not always the main motivation that gets women from Mae Hong Son into prostitution or human trafficking. The need for security from those in authority is another factor that keeps this business going in Mae Hong Son.
"Since Mae Hong Son is far from other cities and almost isolated from the central government, local government officials have become the biggest source of power. People respect local government officials a lot since they can make all things happen with the budget they can draw in and the power that they have. It's not surprising that Mae Hong Son people will try to keep their local authorities happy," Wisut said.
"I know some girls who are willing to sleep with government officials because they want the protection. They want to feel safe and secure with their lives. Some parents even allow government officials to marry their daughters even though the men are already married. They just want to make sure that they are very well taken care of. These people use the cultural believe as a loophole to abuse the system."
Ticha doesn't blame the girls who are the victims of the human trafficking operation. She told Spectrum the girls are not bad or greedy; they are just not immune to society.
"These girls should know who to go to when they have a problem. They should know that there are organisations they can seek help from. We have all these laws to prevent this but these laws are just not strong enough to prevent these girls from becoming victims," Ticha explained.
"The welcoming tradition of new government officials that involves the sexual service of girls must stop. This absurd belief must be ended to ensure that our children are safe. I hope the Mae Hong Son case will be our lesson and biggest case study for human trafficking in children to prevent future incidents."
Police have interviewed people allegedly involved in the Mae Hong Son vice ring and dismissed a number of police officers after they were implicated.
Meanwhile, 23 members of Ban Mai Subdistrict Administrative Organisation in Nonthaburi have been questioned over accusations of receiving sexual services from teenagers.
Social Development and Human Security Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said the ministry is working closely with security and other agencies to find ways to stop the practice of subordinates buying sex services for their bosses to celebrate a special occasion.
Pol Gen Adul said the measures are a response to PM Prayut's order to tackle the sex trade and human trafficking-related problems in state agencies.
Last week representatives from a children's home and the Children and Youth Council of Thailand submitted a letter to the ministry, demanding that it find ways to end the inappropriate norm, he added.
The measures include setting up a special unit responsible for regularly inspecting entertainment venues and communities that offer rented houses and dormitories which could be used for providing sex services, he said.
wheels of justice in motion: One of the five suspects charged in connection with the Mae Hong Son trafficking scandal arrives at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok for further questioning after being arrested early this week. PHOTO: Chanat Katanyu
blowing the whistle: The mother of a girl lured into the underage prostitution racket in Mae Hong Son talks to the police. She has got two other girls to help her with the case. Tawatchai Kemgumnerd