BANGKOK: Thailand is considering legalising its famous sex industry, but human rights advocates, go-go bar owners and many of the prostitutes themselves believe the move will do nothing but line the government's pockets.
The justice ministry has announced plans to hold a “public hearing” later this month on whether or not the government should amend or repeal legislation which outlaws one of the world's biggest flesh trades.
But there are questions over whether the reforms are aimed at improving the lot of exploited sex workers, raking in a mountain of tax revenue from the multi-billion-dollar industry, or protecting the overlords – many alleged to have government ties – who control the trade.
“It's nothing new to us,” said Chantawipa Apisuk, director of Empower Foundation, which champions the rights of Thailand's estimated 200,000 sex workers.
“The slaves, the victims, are the women, and the government thinks problems will be solved if they are legalised. But there are super-powered people making decisions above the law. Why don't we look at them?” she said.
One of the major concerns is a proposal to register sex workers, a move the women fear will stigmatise them forever and prevent them from seeking work elsewhere.
“If we register, it cannot tackle bribery, cannot control owners, and profit-sharing will remain unequal. Perhaps it is just another repressive regulation against the women, because society does not accept the people in these jobs,” Chantawipa said.
Chulalongkorn University professor Narong Phetprasert, a researcher for the ruling Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has proposed slashing four key articles from the existing law.
“The articles are exploitative, providing opportunities for police to take advantage of the girls,” he said, explaining that one of them makes it illegal for a woman to “behave” like a prostitute.
“If we abolish those articles, they can do their profession legally ... and with fewer opportunities for police and authorities to exploit them.”
Narong said Thaksin backs his plan, but that the government wants to close down brothels engaging in bonded prostitution, where women are enslaved and sometimes literally chained up or caged between entertaining customers.
“We want to eliminate the gangster-driven illegal places, and brothels and other locations will be our target if they exploit girls illegally or make them work against their will,” he said.
Thailand's freewheeling sex trade pervades the kingdom, from this capital's famed but graceless neon-lit alleyways of Patpong to exclusive hostess bars, and a vast network of massage parlours and brothels in every town and village.
The origins of the thriving industry are hotly debated, but many believe it was born at the turn of the century with the influx of mainly single male Chinese immigrants.
It then mushroomed during the Vietnam War when US servicemen on R and R flocked to Patpong and other red-light districts in Thailand, which now attract male tourists from all over the globe.
Academic studies have valued the trade as being worth more than 100bil baht (RM9.5bil) a year, one-third the size of the construction or agricultural cropping industries.
The National Economic and Social Advisory Council said in a recent study that massage parlour owners in Thailand pay 3.2bil baht (RM305.5mil) a year in police bribes.
The last major piece of legislation governing the industry, the Protection and Suppression of Prostitution Bill, was passed in 1996. It substantially increased penalties for selling children into the trade while reducing punishment for sex workers.
But go-go bar managers say the business operates with impunity under a network of police, military and government overseers who rake in astronomical profits from well-entrenched systems of bribes and other payouts.
“Why would they want to change this system?” said the manager of a bar on Soi Cowboy, a notorious nightstrip here which employs about 1,000 dancers and bargirls. – AFP
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