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.
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.
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.”