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).
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.
- 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.)