ASEAN’s Garment Making Industry’s Sex-Trade Connection

An article about human trafficking and plucking women and girls from Thai garment factories to be sold into the sex trade, found on the website Thaivisa.com made me think about how the upcoming ASEAN rules of open immigration for ASEAN people in the region could increase human trafficking of sex workers and increase nefarious low wage laboring jobs in ASEAN nations. Given the reputation of such activities already flourishing in South East Asia, it’s almost an assurance that human trafficking will increase along with sweatshop labor conditions all over the region.

Supposedly, Thailand has the best record in the region combating human trafficking and underage sex workers. This is astonishing since Thailand is home to hundreds of thousands, if not in the millions, of venues for prostitution. On sidewalks in Bangkok’s main tourist filled sex hubs of Sukhumivit and Silom/Patpong roads, and in the seaside sex town called Pattya, sidewalk vendors sell any kind of tourist junk one could desire. Also mixed in with the vendors selling t-shirts and trinkets one can easily find proof of an underage sex trade. A large number of sidewalk DVD vendors sell child pornography in full view for all to see. On the covers of DVD packages very young girls are pictured performing sex acts on men and animals. The vendors never even look at the tourists walking by unless they stop to look at their products, and many men and women do – and they buy.

Thailand has only recently begun a social security retirement scheme. But the real and unabashed social security scheme for hundreds of thousands of Thai families without much money is the Thailand sex industry. Thai girls and young women from ghettos and outer provinces eventually find their way into sex work for lack of opportunities. Some are lucky enough to secure a low wage sweat shop job but the pay is never enough and working conditions are brutal. Many, many women find their way into sex work as a result of having worked a low wage-manufacturing job. For a while, at least, sweat shop jobs help the women keep their dignity until they grow older and then get sent packing for the younger women and girls who have more energy and work faster. Job opportunities for women who lose a manufacturing job are almost zero and massage work, and then sex work, are often an only option if they wish to earn cash.

With that said, many manufacturing jobs in Thailand do offer decent wages and longevity on the job. It’s not all doom for factory workers in Thailand, especially if measured against Burma. A possible result of Thailand’s economy uplifting its middle and working class is that many of Burma’s female refugees of all ages can be found in Thailand’s sex trade living without a passport or legal immigration status, and therefore, subjected to trafficking and forced work in the sex trade. It’s a very sad and sordid story that few choose to acknowledge. Since Thailand’s sex trade is institutional and accepted by Thai society as a normal part of their culture, human trafficking and forced prostitution of women and girls is well protected by corrupt authorities willing to ignore it wholesale. Except on an occasion as mentioned in the above-cited article.

In Burma, on a recent trip out to Hlaing Taier Township on the outskirts of Yangon, one can see the future of economic development for poor young women from around the country. The prospect for Burma’s uneducated (or undereducated) and unskilled young women exists in the growing garment and manufacturing industries there. In the morning on the only paved main road through the area, one will see hundreds and hundreds of young women, mostly girls aged anywhere from 14 to 21 lined up while mounting trucks and then packed onto them, standing tightly pressed against each other faced forward. Maybe 50 girls packed like cattle onto a small truck then get ferried off to a garment factory or some other factory to work all day for miserly wages of one or two dollars a day. One will see dozens upon dozens of these trucks on the highway and at the entrances to the factories that are secure and guarded dutifully as the trucks turn and enter the factory property. The factory, being set far inside the compound, is almost out of sight or surrounded by trees and vegetation. Taking photographs around these areas is strictly forbidden and a bit risky. Tall light skinned foreigners are watched and followed carefully there.

The future of Myanmar’s growing manufacturing industry does look grim for Myanmar workers and the prospects for poorer Myanmar people are grim as well. As economic development sucks the life out of the nice Burmese culture that is slowly disappearing behind long traffic jams, land development within the city of Yangon and major projects like free-trade zones all over the country, along with the world’s largest deep water port and multiple dams in Upper Burma, the future for the very poorest of Myanmar looks even more grim. Currently, huge high-rise housing projects are going up miles outside the edges of Yangon. When they’re finished the living poor inside of Yangon will be relocated, their land, if they own any, will be swindled or stolen outright from them. They’ll be forced to purchase an apartment with a low interest 30-year mortgage. Already, massive shopping, hotel and high-rise condominium projects have broken ground in Yangon and in three to five years the city will change forever. By then, no one will ask, like no one asks in Bangkok, “What happened to all of the people who once lived on this land”?

Recently the poor have been abandoned in Monywa by Myanmar’s activist class where their land was stolen to make way for a Chinese owned copper mine because Aung San Suu Kyi has taken sides. True to her elitist roots, she has thrown her cards down with the Generals and the corporate classes and asked the poor who’ve had their land stolen to move away from their heritage for the sake of national development projects. She is certainly no Gandhi. Most of Myanmar’s activists take their cues from her and few are still defending the poor farmers of Monywa. Such travesty and corruption like at Monywa has gone on like this all over Burma/Myanmar for decades. Mineral and timber extraction and oil wells (still being opened offshore) have already been producing from long before sanctions were lifted. And along the coastal areas for miles and miles entire forests have been clear-cut and agribusinesses have been creating rubber plantations; rubber tree seedlings for as far as the eye can see, on and on for scores of miles – only rubber trees.

It seems that Myanmar cronies and generals have simply bolstered themselves with the greed of Western and Asian capitalism and billion dollar loans from IMF and other sources, and in the process neutralized “The Lady” for now and probably forever. They have made her less a symbol of freedom and hope for Burma’s poor and more just a popular politician with a diminishing untouchable aura. Myanmar has become nothing more than a womb being aborted of all of its resources and cultural uniqueness and it’s being primed to become an expensive tourist trap for the well heeled. There will be fewer broken Cheap Charlie backpackers than in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. There are even ATM machines owned by the crony KBZ Bank at the top steps of the entrances to the holy Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

It seems the concept of Democracy is only for the inner sanctums of Yangon’s elite where the well healed and growing newbie NGO and business seeking expat community barely even shed crocodile tears about the poverty and travesty of the West’s cold-hearted scrum for Myanmar’s resources. Dozens of NGOs and USAID-backed programs from western universities aren’t opposed to sweatshops; they are purposefully pacifying the educated populations into accepting them as a part of Myanmar’s “civil society” and embracing “development”. As a result, the human condition and the truths that follow it in Myanmar have no value and people are merely to be pushed aside when necessary or unneeded. You can workshop and train people of the educated class to think wonderfully about neo-liberal economics, open society, corporate greed and capitalism, and make them feel empowered with “capacity building” and western democratic principles by teaching them how to slap Band-Aids on monumental social problems, like the cosmetic I-PACE program does at the American Center in Rangoon, but you won’t find any westerner teaching federalism or concepts of protectionism and you’ll never hear the word “regulation” with regard to Myanmar’s resources, environment, and impoverished people. What gets put into the minds of the educated, activist and upward looking class is that they are a part of the “development of Myanmar” when, in fact, Myanmar’s activists are tricked and caged and enthralled by the well paid westerners with “capacity building” drooling from their lips while sipping from the U.S. government contract teat.

Myanmar is on the cusp of being destroyed by the gold rush mentality of international aid and development. Western governments are behind much of it. The World Bank and IMF, along with developed Asian countries, have been swarming like mosquitos for a taste of the rich Myanmar blood being made available to any who sucks. Carpetbaggers like investment counselors and NGO workers arrive daily offering scams and seeking contracts. All kinds of people are streaming into Myanmar to grab whatever they can at any level. Most of them have no interest in Myanmar’s past or culture, customs or history. These leeches are hell-bent on making Myanmar another Thailand, where Thai culture is barely noticeable anywhere in Bangkok except at dinner shows with costumed dancers. The leeches and self-described do-gooders only want to get money and they freely exploit every aspect of the unregulated and essentially undefended Myanmar society.

Myanmar is still almost a completely lawless place, and money and white American & Eurocentric exceptionalism is the key to getting a desired jackpot in Myanmar for the Euros, Aussies and Americans. Investment seekers and fundraisers make up a huge part of these folks. Almost every one of them is a con artist seeking only to get paid. For them, there’s a Google Group called Yangon Expat Connection in which the dull and selfish mentality of the people streaming into Myanmar is on full display. Expats seeking nannies.  cooks, drivers, gardeners, rubber-handled spatulas, anyone know where I can have a pedicure or find a good tailor? It’s already too late for this once magical country. Capitalist Darwinism has arrived. It’s now survival of the richest, selfish and greediest in what is the most unnatural kind of selection running amok. And in the garment industry, where young women and girls work all day for a dollar plus change, survival is all they can hope for.

Ko Tha Dja has worked for over five years in both Thailand and Burma on issues of education and refugee resettlement. Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.