Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

A touchy subject: Burma’s sex tourism industry

A 1955 comic by Burmese cartoonist Ba Galay discussing 4 kinds of prostitutes.
Upper left: Prostitute who joins because of economic hardship (စီးပွားပျက်လို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူ)
Upper right: Prostitute who joins because of stress/unhappiness (စိတ်ညစ်လို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူ)
Bottom left: It is easy to rescue prostitute who joins because of bad acquaintances, but... (အပေါင်းမကောင်းလို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူတွေကို ကယ်တင်ဘို့လွယ်ကူပေမဲ့)
Bottom right: prostitutes who join because they're sexually promiscuous experience many diffculties. (ကာမသောင်းကျန်းလို့ ပြည့်တန်ဆာလုပ်သူကြတော့ အခုလိုအခက်အခဲများတွေ့တတ်သည်။)

Lately, I’ve noticed a crop of news articles and opinion pieces pop up about Burma’s sex tourism industry. It’s no surprise that Burma has a burgeoning sex tourism industry, targeted toward expatriates and foreigners, especially after the country loosened its strict visa policies in the 1990s (from 1964 to the 1970s, most visas were limited to 24 hours and until the 1990s, to 7 days). Not to mention Burma also has one of Asia’s highest HIV prevalence rates (among Burmese sex workers, the prevalence rate is a whopping 30-70%), and is the country of origin for a lot of Thailand’s foreign sex workers.

Prostitution, despite its undesirable nature, will never disappear. Thus, it’s in the government’s best interests to regulate the industry (commonly in the guise of massage parlors, beauty parlors and KTV lounges), especially given that sex workers are primary vectors for STIs and commonly victims of exploitation and abuse. However, I don’t know what to feel about legitimizing this profession, especially in a country like Burma. But this issue must be snipped at the bud, before Burma solidifies its reputation as a sex tourism destination.

The Burmese language has an abundance of slang words for prostitutes (some I’ve never heard, until I read this paper), a lot of them introduced during the Japanese occupation:

  • Formal: ပြည့်တန်ဆာ (pyeitaza)
  • Informal: ဖာ၊ ဖာမ (pha/pha ma, ‘basket’), ကြက်၊ ကြက်မ (kyet/kyet ma, ‘chicken’), ပခြုပ်သည် (pachok the, ‘basketweaver’), (nat thami, ‘angel’), ဇိမ်မ (zein ma, ‘comfort woman’), ညဉ့်ငှက် (nye hnget, ‘night bird’), ညမွှေးပန်း (nya hmwei pan, ‘fragrant night flower’), အပြာမယ် (apya me, ‘blue/porn mistress’)

Talk about sex tourism has grown especially as the country is actively seeking Western investment. There are many Burmese who argue that opening up the country has ushered in khit pyet (ခေတ်ပျက်), literally a “broken era.” And many fear Burma will follow Thailand’s model (read this Irrawaddy opinion piece). Just skimming the comments, I can tell there are many Burmese puritans want to turn a blind eye to this problem.

But what many don’t realize is that prostitution was relatively prevalent in colonial times and even in the post-independence era following 1948. After the Great Depression, Burma had the largest prostitution industry in British India:

In all likelihood, one of the occupations to which such displaced women turned to alleviate the adverse ramifications of the Depression was prostitution, the scale of which in Burma was described by a 1916 report as the largest in British India. It is conceivable that the Depression thus had the effect of making more Burmese women more easily sexually available to foreign men, especially if in the 1930s, as in the 1910s, the clients of brothels in Burma were predominantly British troops and sepoys from the Indian subcontinent.
– “The Modern Burmese Woman and the Politics of Fashion in Colonial Burma” (link)*

The Brits also imposed a screening process for prostitutes to monitor for STIs.

This Reuters article, written by Soe Zeya Tun, summarizes some of the latest buzz about the costs of tourism. I definitely know some overseas Burmese women who don’t allow their husbands  to return to Burma by themselves, because prostitutes are a dime a dozen, especially if you look in the right places.

Recently, in Feb. of this year, a Japanese man was caught on CCTV slapping a Burmese hotel employee (at Rangoon’s Orchid Hotel) because the employee didn’t allow him to bring a female guest into his room, per hotel policy. The footage is available below (she’s physically assaulted at 3:00):

What’s noteworthy is that this seemingly innocuous case highlights the prevalence of sex work in Burma. The Japanese man was most likely bringing in a female guest with the intention of having sex with her. (Apparently the slapped employee is facing a lawsuit now as well).

In this interview with Andrea Valentin, founder of a Burmese tourism NGO, Tourism Transparency, she makes some interesting observations about how Burmese society is complicit in hiding this issue:

Q: A most concerning issue is that Burma is now experiencing the spread of sex tourism, as you also mentioned in your article. What lessons can Burma learn from its neighboring countries Thailand and Cambodia?

A: I’m glad you asked this question. The spread of sex tourism is my biggest concern for the future [in Burma].

The lessons to learn are pretty straightforward: if Burma wants to have more prostitutes than monks in the country, then they should follow Thailand’s tourism development approach. Hopefully Burma will want to avoid Cambodia’s 30,000 children involved in sex tourism, some of who are as young as five.

The recent case of a Japanese man slapping a staff member of the Orchid Hotel is quite telling of a dilemma I observed in Burma: the slapping caught on video drew much criticism and outraged many people. But surprisingly few people lamented the fact that the Japanese man was a sex tourist. Most focused on the outrageousness of the act, not the wider issue of sex tourism.

In a conservative country like Burma, where sexual activity is seen as a very private matter, the sad truth is that it won’t be too difficult to develop a thriving sex tourism industry. Sex tourism brings in foreign currency and generates revenues, and local communities are reluctant to act or intervene in this taboo, making women and children far more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

A short anecdote on a Burmese prostitute who works in Rangoon, primarily serving foreign clients:

20-year-old Ma Aye Aye describes her experience of working as a prostitute in one of YGN’s recently opened nightclubs, where she is paired with Thai, French, Malaysian and Chinese customers who pay her between $40-100 USD as a tip, on top of the 2,000 kyat (~$12 USD in 1997) she was paid by the pimp. This job is a new one for her, as until a few months ago she was supporting her child by having intercourse with 10 to 12 men everyday in Nyaungbintha.
Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear, p. 198

Undoubtedly, the biggest draws to this industry is the money, especially given that unemployment and poverty are rife in Burma. I suspect that most  prostitutes in Burma, especially in the cities, become prostitutes by choice and its recruits tend to be from poorer towns or outlying suburbs. In my last visit to Burma, in 2009, I noticed that Burmese-Western pairings were on the rise, especially in hotel lobbies at night. Also, there were more KTV lounges and nightclubs (Burmese language news report here), especially in Chinatown.

In 1940, Thein Pe Myint suggested recommendations in his book Tet Khit Nat So (တက်ခေဆ်နတ်ဆိုး, available for download here), progressive even by today’s standards, which seem ever relevant today:

  • issue licenses to prostitutes
  • register brothels in special zones
  • tax prostitutes
  • regulate trade with compulsory STI screenings
  • increase state budge for STI centers

Sadly, addressing these complex issues is contingent on a government with a pretty dismal track record by all accounts.

* Sorry, these articles may be locked for general readers without academic access. I’ve been taking advantage of my University affiliation to read up on papers regarding this topic. (I wish I could simply post the papers themselves, because they’re worth the read, but I don’t want to be caught with substantial copyright fines.)

13 comments on “A touchy subject: Burma’s sex tourism industry

  1. Pingback: Myanmar: Sex Tourism Industry · Global Voices

  2. Pingback: Μιανμάρ: Βιομηχανία σεξοτουρισμού · Global Voices στα Ελληνικά

  3. Eric K.
    12 May 2012

    Really interesting how you talk about the language of prostitution and how that affects the way people talk (or don’t talk) about the issue… This is one of those issues that really makes me sad and feel hopeless about world…

  4. Cambodian Music
    12 May 2012

    I find it particularly sad that people from developed countries are traveling to an impoverished country like Cambodia to prey on children. Cambodians generally look up to foreigners, particularly Westerners, as role models for fairness, benevolence, freedom and justice. The acts of the sex tourists are threatening to undermine the good deeds of those foreigners who are in Cambodia to do good.

  5. Wagaung
    12 May 2012

    Reminds me of a telephone conversation (an audio file posted on the net some years ago) between two old school friends, one of them resident in Singapore and the other an army officer studying in Moscow. The question posed by the former on the subject of prostitution on the rise inside Burma was a rhetorical one but brilliant nonetheless. It goes, “So do you think our women suddenly got the itch in recent times under the military regime but not before?”

    Thein Pe Myint in 1940 BTW was a founder member of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). No, we cannot stick our head in the sand over this sensitive issue, and I am glad The Irrawaddy was discussing it. The oldest profession in history is not only alive and well in Burma it’s set to become a booming sector of private enterprise unless our leaders get their socioeconomic priorities right. Or we’ll be simply left to picking up the pieces.

  6. educasia
    10 July 2012

    Educasia (a small local CBO) has a draft of a *Gender Issues* social studies module (currently only in English but being translated) focusing on gender-related issues in Myanmar, including a sex work chapter, a gender-based violence chapter and an education chapter. It is designed to help adult Myanmar students learn more about gender in both a local and international context. A free pdf of the student’s book can be send by email upon request to

  7. empower
    12 July 2012

    sex workers in Burma have been organizing around their rights and safety for many years now and have a national network that is part of the regional and international sex workers netowrk In fact the head of the sex worker organization in Rangoon is the regional chairperson for our asia pacific network. The organization is about to be one of the organizations showcased in the latest UNFPA Best Practice Case Studies…so if you want to help… listen, learn, respect, and support!

  8. Andrew Hunter
    12 July 2012

    Andrea, once again you’re trying to spread your false propaganda to whip up a nice anti sex worker hysteria to presumably get what you see as your due share of the new aid that will flow to Burma. Anti trafficking lies pay really well.

  9. Heidi Hoefinger
    12 July 2012

    “Cambodia’s 30,000 children involved in sex tourism”

    Just curious where this hugely inflated number has been pulled from? I have been researching the sex and entertainment industry in Cambodia for nearly a decade, and involved in sex worker activism at both the local and international level, and this number is more than the total population size estimate for adult sex workers in the whole country! Throwing out unsubstantiated figures in order to secure anti-trafficking funding for particular organizations is ultimately damaging to children who are victims of trafficking as well as sex workers. Misguided anti-trafficking efforts have been proven–worldwide–to disrupt and impinge on very important work being done by sex worker organizations in the areas of HIV prevention and human rights. Sensationalized hysteria over trafficking is dangerous to everyone and if we want to really assist those women and children in exploitative situations, we must work with sex workers–not against them.

  10. Wagaung
    14 July 2012

    Whilst I am impressed by the work of educasia, empower, Andrea, Andrew and Heidi, the point is not to make it a booming industry not just a happy hunting ground for both the punters and the NGOs helping them and incidentally helping themselves in yet another growth industry. There is an old saw in Burmese: there are three places that oughtn’t to be busy – law courts, hospitals and cemeteries. You might add brothels to it with or without STIs.

  11. Burma Parliamentary including Upper House and Lower House with the Rule of Law and Stability Committee need to protect but not to stop sex industries who employ sex workers such as prostitutes, call girl, pornographic actors, pornographic models, sex show performers, erotic dancers, striptease dancers, telephone sex operators, cybersex operators, or amature porn stars for online sex sessions and videos, from anti-pornography movement, pedophilia, dehumanization, exploitation, sexual dysfunction, and inability to maintain healthy sexual relationships, criminal activities for lack of Education of the industry, human trafficking, illegal immigration, drug abuse, and exploitation of children (child pornography, child prostitution). The sex industry should also concern about the spread of STDs.

  12. One of the good points how we can protect sex workers is to strongly advise them to be truthful and not to get money extra apart from the rate or term they have agreed for.

  13. Dr.David Ngin Sian Pau
    30 August 2012

    It’s worth proposing Bill for sex industry in Burma if we are going to develop the country and increase the value of Burmese currency. It’s one of the strategies to make the economy of the country improved fast.

    And if there is no protection scheme for them, sex workers can’t do what they ought to do to get attracted and to do well in their job, which will stop getting local and foreign customers. If there is no protection law, there is a possibility of committing crimes most of the times by the sex workers or the customers. Making it legal can automatically stop them from committing crimes at any level.

    Why is it necessary to protect them? Whether the government opens for sex industry or not, it’s been the practice of all nations in the world so, you can’t simply stop those people, and if you arrest or assault them it results in violation of human rights which will make the the name of the government spoiled and give the government a bad name or a blacklisted country in the world. It’s the best way to allow them to do business openly with freedom and at the same time, protect them from possible harmful treatment within and without those groups.

    A MP who works at a Parliamentary level in Burma should know about it without fail. If you protect, remember you protect yourself, your country, your own family and your people.

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This entry was posted on 10 April 2012 by in Burma, Economy and tagged , , .




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