CULTURAL, ECONOMIC AND LEGAL FACTORS UNDERLYING TRAFFICKING IN THAILAND AND THEIR IMPACT ON WOMEN AND GIRLS FROM BURMA
I. Setting It Up
Thailand is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking, including trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation. In recent years, Thailand has sought to improve its sex trafficking image and reputation. Admirable moves have been taken at the national, provincial, and local levels. However, even comprehensive plans of action will have only cosmetic or incidental effects unless all of the underlying root causes of trafficking are addressed from both the supply and the demand side.
In the past two decades, Thailand has done much to address the supply-side factors contributing to prostitution and sex trafficking. Improved educational opportunities for Thai women and tribal people as well as economic development have reduced the vulnerability of these populations to trafficking. Research from a few years ago, if it was ever accurate, is now obsolete as to the “green harvest” dynamics of sex trafficking of ethnic Thai women and girls from Northern Thailand. Even the ethnic minority women who replenished the supply of exploited women are finding their situations improved and are becoming less vulnerable to trafficking into sexual slavery in Northern Thailand.
However, the demand for victims of sex trafficking has not been addressed, nor has it abated. The demand factors are deeply rooted in cultural attitudes, economic interests, and legal policies that support the infamous Thai prostitution industry. Consequently, the faces of the victims have changed but not the flow. People from Burma and other neighboring countries are becoming more vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution in Thailand. For decades, neighboring Burma has been the source of a flood of migrants to Thailand in search of better economic opportunities as well as escape from human rights abuses. Until internal changes are made in Burma, the number of people wishing to migrate to Thailand will only increase. As the only “rising Tiger” among its poorly developed neighbors--Burma, Cambodia, and Laos-- Thailand faces enormous pressure in terms of migration management. Understandably, Thailand does not want to completely open its borders to economic migrants or it would quickly be overwhelmed.
Yet viewing the issue of migration policy purely from an economic perspective has a direct impact on the incidence of human trafficking in Thailand. The people who attempt to escape human rights abuses, the resultant poverty, and other social effects caused by the neighboring military regimes are not considered refugees by Thailand. In particular, Thailand does not grant refugee status to ethnic Shan women, whose systematic rape and sexual abuse is a documented weapon of war. These and other women from the Shan State bordering Thailand seek to escape these abuses and find a better life through migration to Thailand. Unfortunately, they are put in a double bind because of Thai policy. Thailand restricts the flow of regular migration from Burma to Thailand due to economic considerations and long standing prejudice. This puts the vast majority of people suffering from abuse and poverty in Burma in the situation of becoming irregular migrants and, thus, makes them vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and trafficking. In fact, it is women from the Shan State who now make up a large portion of women and girls in the most exploitative forms of prostitution in Northern Thailand and many of them are or have been victims of trafficking.
Indeed, conceptual complexity is required to understand the nature of trafficking of people from Burma because it does not look like the standard trafficking. Simplistic trafficking policy, as with simplistic migration policy, creates demand-side defects on the receiving side of the border. The classic understanding of international trafficking contemplates a victim as being tricked or forced to move from her home country to another country for the purposes of exploitation. However, in the Burmese-Thai context, women and girls are moving voluntary for economic and human rights reasons. As regular means for migration are unavailable, the movement takes the form of smuggling or other forms irregular migration. The exploitation occurs during or after the movement. The fact that the migrant is irregular and undocumented is precisely what makes her vulnerable to trafficking and/or exploitation. It is Thailand's very migration and refugee policy that contributes to the incidence of trafficking in the face of an ever-increasing flow of migrants to Thailand. This issue must be addressed for any anti-trafficking efforts to be truly effective.
Deep-rooted prejudice on the part of the receiving country where the demand exists must also be addressed. For hundreds of years, the Burmese and Thai kingdoms have been political enemies. Shan people are also known as “Tai Yai” or “Big Thai.” Ethnically, they are cousins to the Northern Thai. However, with ethnic ties, like family relations, intra-family hatreds often run deeper than inter-family ones. When the major source of trafficked women and girls consisted of ethnic Thais, Thailand responded. When the source changed to ethnic minority girls living within Thailand's borders, Thailand responded, albeit with less enthusiasm, as is illustrated by the fact that many ethnic minorities living in Thailand for generations still lack citizenship, thus increasing their vulnerability to trafficking. However, when a major flow of trafficked women and girls come from across the border, the temptation is for policy makers, both inside and outside of Thailand, to shift the responsibility to the supply side. Yet, a Burmese regime change is unlikely in the immediate future, and even democratic change will not necessarily result in immediate economic improvement, as seen in the case of the CIS. Therefore, despite the fact that supply side fault factors are much to blame, it remains the responsibility of the demand side to comprehensively address the trafficking of Burmese women because the impact of the failure to do so will be felt and suffered by the side where the demand exists. Indeed, if there were no demand for exploitative sexual services on the Thai-side of the border, the flow of victims of sex trafficking would not exist, even if the migration flow continued.
Thailand's national, provincial and local legal mechanisms to address trafficking must take account of these supply and demand considerations to be effective. Comprehensive efforts must be made, beginning at the local level, to reduce demand side factors. Demand side country immigration and labor policy must provide opportunity and protection for migrants instead of prosecution and deportation to prevent a revolving door effect. And while economic analysis and migration impacts are essential for consideration, anti-trafficking law, policy and procedures must be based on a human rights perspective. Trafficking in persons is a complex issue requiring a complex set of interwoven solutions. Economics, migration, asylum policy, human rights and cultural prejudices are just a few of the strands that must be unraveled and reworked to formulate effective solutions in addressing Thai-Burmese trafficking.