Can Burma Avoid the Curse of Sex Tourism?

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Alexander F. Yuan / AP

A man looks at female sex workers by the side of a road while a car drives by in Rangoon, Burma, on Sept. 2, 2012

On a recent evening at a popular beer hall in Rangoon, two dozen women wearing skimpy dresses and hair extensions swayed mechanically on a stage and took turns mumbling lines of high-energy pop songs into the microphone. The crowd — mostly Burmese men, but also a few groups of foreign tourists — drank mugs of Tiger beer and took videos with their phones. Every once in a while, a girl would receive a feather boa — a tip from an admirer in the audience, costing about $12. The show concluded with a performer bouncing a flaming ball on her foot while jumping through a flaming hula hoop — and the doors were closed by 10 p.m.

Rangoon’s so-called “model shows” are hardly salacious affairs compared with the raunchy sex shows that have made Bangkok one of the world’s sex-tourism capitals. But Burmese officials and human-rights groups are worried about what could come next as tourists pour into Burma after decades of isolation. In 2012, Burma received more than a million foreign tourists, up from 816,000 the year before. This year, the country is anticipating 1.5 million — a near doubling of the number of visitors in two years. While tourism is pumping much needed cash into the country — more than half a billion dollars last year — officials want to keep sex off the list of local attractions. One need only look across the border to see why: Thailand has the highest HIV rate in Southeast Asia, and Cambodia, tragically, has a thriving child sex industry.

(MORE: Will Burma Become Asia’s Next Economic Tiger?)

Burmese fears are well founded. Human-trafficking networks have long operated in the country, funneling thousands of women and girls into Thailand to fuel the sex industry there, to say nothing of the many women (particularly from the impoverished border state of Shan) who voluntarily go. Many are underage and willing to sell their virginity for high prices, says Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw, the Burma project coordinator for the U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP). “The parents and the girls themselves, and even the community, has kind of accepted that it is happening, and that’s how you can support your parents,” she says. After Cyclone Nargis devastated southern Burma in 2008, the number of women entering the domestic sex industry in cities like Rangoon also rose dramatically, according to local media reports.

A sex industry catering to foreign tourists has been kept largely at bay, simply because Burma has had relatively few visitors to date. (Thailand, by comparison, received 22 million visitors in 2012.) But there are signs this is changing. Andrea Valentin, founder of Tourism Transparency, which advocates responsible tourism in Burma, says she recently came across a website in Japan advertising sex tourism in the country, with a list of hotels willing to help arrange it. Hotel owners have also told her that they provide tourists with phone numbers for prostitutes when asked. “They have said, ‘Look, we have problems. We don’t know what to do because we’re a hotel, we want tourists to feel well.’”

Sex isn’t explicitly on offer at model shows, karaoke bars and massage parlors, but it’s certainly available. “Everything is happening backdoor,” says Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw. “It’s very difficult to get any evidence that, O.K., this is a good karaoke bar and this is a bad one, but among men, they know, and sometimes the taxi drivers also know.” In recent years, 13 foreigners have also been blacklisted from Burma after engaging in or attempting to engage in child sex while visiting the country. While pedophilia isn’t yet the same concern it is in Cambodia, the government doesn’t want the problem to get worse. “By learning from other neighboring countries, we feel we should start working on this now rather than later,” Colonel Win Naing Tun, a deputy commander in the Special Branch of the Myanmar Police Force, tells TIME.

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In fact, the authorities have been working on the issue of sex tourism for some time. Last year, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism launched a new responsible-tourism policy in collaboration with the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German NGO, and published a code of conduct for tourists, spearheaded by Valentin and illustrated by famous Burmese cartoonists, for distribution by hotels and tour operators. The Asian Development Bank, with a grant from Norway, is meanwhile working on a master tourism plan for the government that encourages more public-awareness campaigns and a commitment from hotels, tour providers and police to confront sex tourism when they come across it. It’s expected to be approved later this year. The UNIAP is holding workshops to train hotel staff and tour operators on how to recognize potential sex tourists, and anti-human-trafficking and child-sex-tourism hotlines have been set up in major tourist areas.

Of course, laws and tourism plans won’t make a difference if enforcement is lax. Officially, prostitution is illegal in Burma, but the authorities tend to turn a blind eye to the profession. And when raids occur at brothels, the prostitutes are usually the ones arrested, not the owners or customers. Sex workers suffer mistreatment at the hands of law-enforcement officials, as well. “Many [officials] still take advantage of the situation, maybe they may ask money or they may threaten them,” says Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw. To this end, she adds, UNICEF and various NGOs have begun training police officers on how to handle such cases in a professional manner.

Despite the challenges, Valentin is cautiously optimistic Burma can avoid the Thailand and Cambodia sex-tourism curse, given its early start. “It’s been inward-looking for 60 years. Now they’re opening up, and they’re trying to learn all of these things,” she says. “We need to support these things that they are implementing very bravely.”

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16 comments
PANATAG
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cham
cham

"Cambodia is attractive place for a lot of dodgy people and we think burma is heading on the same path unless the government put law before profits."

Quote from: http://www.tonlegroup.com

deanmiah
deanmiah

Burma has had sex tourism since time immortal. Its violence and current ethnic cleansing by the Buddhist that needs attention and intervention. Rape and pillaging is spreading faster than sexually transmitted diseases. 

wvaduz
wvaduz

The article doesn't explain why sex tourism is a curse.. I'm very ready to accept that, but then please tell us why. The closest the author gets is some vague reference to allegedly high hiv rates in neighboring Thailand, and states they are the highest in the region.  That in itself is debatable (Google!) but even if it was somehow accurate, then you still need to make a link to sex tourism specifically, and not other potential causes such as domestic prostitution, promiscuity, drug use, etc, etc.   How can anyone take this article seriously if the author doesn't care about the basics?

BalakrishnanGurumurti
BalakrishnanGurumurti

sad but true. poverty drives people to all this. Governments governance is a kind of loot of very peoples wealth  of virginity too which is basest of base behavior of politics which is also happening in many parts of india too. In the name of dating several sex shops opened for earning and a lot of agents are springing up. I visited Bangkok there i saw , at Dacca it is normal  as income generation from sensible work is just dead or dying, besides well to do even over indulge in all kinds of adventures and are saddled with debts of all kinds covering for for at least two decades ahead. Once women were protected lot in the east by their husbands or parents but today the very same husbands and parents look for income from these women as machines. Else they torture these women and girls. coming back to burma, it is a country ruled by army by so called democracy why even real democracies have degenerated. thanks to modern breed of politicians every where worse in the East while all people talk all kinds of philosophies.Talking philosophy is normal in East but that very philosophy encourages the women to do anything for pelf and power. But in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, it is high level poverty due to governance being at the lowest ebb ! Let us see what human rights will help these unfortunate millions!

NyeinBotun
NyeinBotun

The sex tourism in Myanmar is already established by cronies of last government.

ChristosElGreco
ChristosElGreco

Pulp fiction anyone?

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

sharealittle950
sharealittle950

Instead of combating sex tourism, perhaps the Burmese should make the business of sex, safer. 

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

Another sign that This World is racing toward Judgement.......

..............Revelation 6:14-16......
......14 Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. 15 And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, 16 and said to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@Crossroads Revelations is so bad that Emperor Constantin's committee, the guys who put together the Bible, had a very hard time deciding if it was a madman's ramblings, or divinely inspired prophecy. In the end they decided to include it, just in case. 

But, anyone who's heard a schizophrenic ramble in the New York subway knows it for what it is.

sharealittle950
sharealittle950

@snugglepuma @CrossroadsThe person can't. Christianity is reality (I'm a non-believer), and politics deals with reality. The verse comment is sad, scary, and funny...