(New York) - The Thai government is guilty of complicity in the trafficking of Burmese women and girls into Thailand for forced prostitution, according to A Modern Form of Slavery, released today by Human Rights Watch. The 160-page report documents the direct involvement of Thai police and border guards in the illicit sex trade, and the Thai government's routine failure to punish its own officials and others who engage in or profit from this abuse. It concludes that in 1993 alone the Royal Thai Government, rather than punishing officials and other traffickers, has wrongfully arrested and deported hundreds of Burmese victims, in clear violation of Thailand's obligations under national and international law. Human Rights Watch urges the Chuan administration to investigate and prosecute officials and other traffickers, to stop the unwarranted arrest and deportation of trafficking victims and to ensure the women and girls' safe return to Burma.
A Modern Form of Slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothels in Thailand, based on three missions to Thailand by Human Rights Watch Asia and Women's Rights divisions, documents over fifty cases of Burmese women and girls lured by unscrupulous recruiters to Thailand with promises of good jobs and a cash advance, often paid to their parents. Human Rights Watch traces the women and girls' cross-border transport and their confinement in illegal brothels throughout Thailand where they are forced to work off their debt, often with 100 percent interest, through what amounts to sexual servitude. In addition to debt bondage, the women and girls face a wide range of abuses, including illegal confinement; forced labor; rape; physical abuse; exposure to HIV/AIDS; and, in some cases, murder. The Burmese women and girls work ten to eighteen hours a day, twenty-five days a month with anywhere from 5-15 clients a day. Health care and birth control information are minimal. Most of the women and girls are interviewed were virgins when they entered Thailand; fifty to seventy percent of them were HIV positive when they left. Escape for the Burmese women and girls is virtually impossible. If they step outside the brothel, they risk physical punishment, retribution against their parents or other relatives for defaulting on a debt and/or arrest as an illegal immigrant-by the same police who are often the brothel's best clients. Thai NGOs estimate that over 20,000 Burmese women and girls are currently in Thai brothels, with 10,000 new recruits each year.
Many of the Burmese women and girls interviewed spoke of payments by recruiters to Thai and Burmese border officials and/or Thai police involvement in their transport into Thailand, at times directly to the brothels. The vast majority of the women and girls had Thai police officers as clients, often with special privileges. They spoke of their brothels being located near police stations and of witnessing brothel owners paying protection money to local police. A survey reported by a major Bangkok newspaper found that the standard fee paid by brothel owners to police depends on the size of the brothel: $120 for ten women, $200 for twenty and $400 for more than twenty.
In November 1992, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai pledged to crack down on official involvement in forced and child prostitution. In one recent case, involving the brutal 1992 murder of a Thai prostitute in Songkhla, two police officers were prosecuted and sentenced. Yet, over a year later, not a single Thai police officer has been investigated or prosecuted for involvement in the illicit trade in Burmese women and girls. To our knowledge, official involvement in the Burmese women and girls' cross-border transport, confinement and sexual exploitation has gone entirely unpunished. Brothel owners, recruiters and pimps have been similarly exempt from punishment.
A Modern Form of Slavery concludes that the main target of the Chuan Administration's highly publicized crackdown on forced and child prostitution has been the victims themselves. Although Thai domestic law and international anti-trafficking norms expressly exempt trafficking victims from imprisonment or summary deportation, Thai authorities have routinely arrested the Burmese women and girls, detained them, often without charge or trial, and abused them in detention before deporting them to Burma. Only a few women and girls have been rescued and housed by local NGOs prior to their return to Burma.
(Human Rights Watch notes that the Thai government's attitude toward Burmese trafficking victims contrasts sharply with its efforts on behalf of Thai women trafficked into Japan and subsequently arrested as illegal immigrants. When the Japanese government indicated in July 1993 that it planned to crack down on illegal immigrants in August 1993, Thai officials urged Japan not to use imprisonment as a punishment for Thias facing arrest for illegal entry and to take special measures to protect Thai women from "gangster bosses." Thailand also urged Japan to pay all repatriation costs of the Thais involved.)
Information about what happens to women and girls when they return to Burma is not readily available. No domestic human rights organizations exist inside Burma, and international non-governmental human rights groups are not permitted access. Many trafficking victims are known to have been arrested for illegal departure from Burma or for prostitution. A few have reached home safely with the help of Thai NGOs. In a new approach that, with some additional safeguards, might have served as a model for protecting the women and girls, the Thai government in September 1992 worked with Burmese authorities to arrange the official repatriation of ninety-five women and girls. While this marked an important initial effort by Thai and Burmese authorities to craft an equitable approach to trafficking victims consistent with international law, the Thai government never followed up on the returned women and girls to ensure their safety and by 1993 seemed to have abandoned the approach entirely.
A Modern Form of Slavery is the first report issued by Human Rights Watch to document the link between the denial of fundamental human rights and exposure to HIV/AIDS. In case after case documented in the report, the Thai government's failure to adequately protect against and punish the Burmese women and girls' debt-bondage, illegal confinement and compulsory, repeated and often unprotected sexual relations with large numbers of men contributed to their exposure to the deadly HIV virus. In turn, the women and girl's actual or suspected HIV status resulted in further abuse, including mandatory and ill-informed testing by public officials and the non-consensual distribution of test results which not only violates their rights to privacy but risks subjecting them to further abuse on return to Burma.
The Thai government has taken some initial steps to reform domestic laws relevant to the issues addressed in this report. It has also established a unit within the Crime Suppression Division of the police to deal with forced and child prostitution. But the legal efforts have stalled, and without the political will to prosecute the traffickers and fully protect the victims, the abuses against Burmese women and girls are likely to continue. Human Rights Watch asserts that none of the measures needed to stop trafficking and related abuses will take place without concerted international pressure. That pressure must come from countries like Japan and the United States which have close relations with Thailand; form the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which also have an interest in ending trafficking; from China, whose women are also being sold into Thai brothels, and from international organizations such as the United Nations.