Thailand Law Journal 2009 Spring Issue 1 Volume 12

II. Breaking It Down

A. Context of Trafficking

Trafficking in persons takes place in the context of cultural attitudes, economic interests, and legal frameworks.  An interwoven combination of cultural, economic and legal factors in Thailand and Burma contribute to trafficking and other exploitation of migrants from Burma, including the sexual exploitation of women and children.  Thailand's economic interest in the sex industry, unfavorable cultural attitudes towards the Burmese, economic interests in Burma, demand for cheap migrant labor, and lack of legal status for people experiencing human rights abuses in Burma all contribute to trafficking of people from Burma for purposes of labor and sexual exploitation.  These factors also, impact the incidence of undocumented irregular migrant workers, including sex workers, who are subject to all forms of exploitation at the hands of employers. The law alone does not adequately address these factors, but deep changes must be made at all three levels in order to effectively combat trafficking.

Thailand is a sending, receiving, and transit country for human trafficking in the Mekong Sub-region which consists of Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Yunnan province of China, Cambodia and Vietnam.  In fact, it is the largest destination country in the region.  Trafficking into, out of, and through Thailand occurs for many purposes, including labor exploitation and sexual exploitation.  However this Article, in line with the Symposium, [FN1] will primarily focus on trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation. It will also focus more broadly on the “sex trade” because not all sexual exploitation that occurs is trafficking, and many of the cultural, economic and legal factors that form the context of forced prostitution also create the economic force that leads to “voluntary” prostitution.

While trafficking encompasses a greater variety of exploitation than just sexual exploitation, there is a link between sex trafficking and prostitution.  In fact, were there not a demand for the sex industry in its various forms, there would be no sex trafficking.

B. Historical Background of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in Thailand

Prostitution and trafficking have existed in Thailand for centuries, extending to the pre-modern period. [FN2] In the Ayutthaya period from 1351 to 1767, “women were given as rewards for military achievement” and “exchanged or taken as concubines by elite men.”  [FN3] Under the Sakdina system of that period, “women were . . . taken to service Thai peasant men working on (compulsory) corvee labor for the nobility.”  [FN4] During this time, promiscuity was the domain of aristocrats who could afford minor wives. “There were three orders of wife: (1) the principal, (2) the secondary and (3) the slave . . . . The slave wife was acquired through purchase and indebtedness . . . [husbands] could sell them and punish them corporally.”  [FN5]

When Thailand opened relations with the West, the government began to Westernize its laws, policies and practices involving slavery, polygamy and prostitution. [FN6] In 1905, King Rama V abolished slavery; however, this merely transformed many slave wives into prostitutes instead.[FN7] “To become ‘free’ with no land or means of subsistence naturally led to women being absorbed by brothels.”[FN8]

Without education and without the supports of the old feudal system, women were left to fend for themselves . . . . [A] large number of women--now no longer the slave-wives of individual men or slave-women who had provided sexual service to visiting guests of their master--drifted into prostitution as a means of maintaining themselves and their families in the post-slavery era. [FN9] Furthermore, “[p]rostitution developed in the nineteenth century with the expansion of the rice export economy and the influx of male Chinese migrants to the cities.”  [FN10] After the 1855 Bowring Treaty opened Thailand to international trade, women and children were brought to Thailand, sometimes forcibly, to marry or become prostitutes for Chinese migrant workers. [FN11]“Chinese women were assumed to enter prostitution unwillingly, to have been trafficked either explicitly for the purpose of prostitution, or as mui tsui (young girls used for domestic service).”[FN12]

In the 1930s, “the effects of the Great Depression had been devastating in rural parts of the country, and a growing number of women turned to prostitution to support themselves and their families.” During the World War II period of the 1930s and 40s, the occupying Japanese used Thai women for prostitution.[FN13] During the Vietnam War period of the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. military made lucrative contracts for the use of Thai prostitutes, both at air bases in the northeastern part of the country, known as Issan, and at R&R spots such as Patpong in Bangkok and the sea port of Pattaya.[FN14]

Additionally, significant socioeconomic changes occurred in the 1960s that transformed the local farm-based sustenance economy to a capitalistic system requiring cash.  As a result, those who could no longer make a living farming in the rural northern and northeastern provinces began large scale migration to the cities, especially Bangkok.  Original migrants were male, but later, female migrants also came to the city where they found limited low-skilled job opportunities, which consisted of work in factories as well as prostitution.  Researchers Seabrook and Jeffrey explain the progression:

Rural poverty fed the first wave of migration to the cities in the 1960s.  Young women went to the city and there often found their way into the sex industry, falling under the control of pimps and recruiters.  This was especially true of the period of the Vietnam war.  By the 1970s, enough young women had returned to the villages with money to make sex work more or less “respectable”, or at least desirable, and many women came to Bangkok and other towns and resorts in Thailand to work in the bars and clubs. [FN15]

With the declining terms of trade in the rural areas brought on by export-led industrialization policies, which drained resources away from the countryside and into the urban areas, women's responsibility to provide for their families led more and more rural daughters to seek work in the new sex industry. [FN16]

Soon more women than men migrated from the countryside to Bangkok, only to find poorly paid and exploitative work in the export factories or even more demeaning work in domestic service.  Work in prostitution however, could provide an income twenty-five times greater than the median level of other occupations in which migrant women found themselves. [FN17]

Another shift took place in the 1970s after the Vietnam war, military prostitution was transformed to cater to an expanding civilian market. “[G]overnment encouragement of the prostitution and tourism industries . . . fueled the demand for tourism-prostitution services.” [FN18] Then, in the 1980s, the dynamic changed from voluntary economic migration to cities to women and girls being duped and trafficked into prostitution in places far from home, both in Thailand and abroad.[FN19]

[FN1]. Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender & Program in Holocaust & Human Rights Studies Symposium: Sexual Slavery: New Approaches to an Old Problem (Nov. 17, 2005).

[FN2]. Leslie Ann Jeffrey, Sex and Borders: Gender, National Identity, and Prostitution Policy in Thailand xi (2000) (“[H]istorians have identified various forms of what may be called prostitution even in the ancient kingdoms that pre-dated Siam/Thailand ...”).

[FN3]. Jeremy Seabrook, Travels in the Skintrade: Tourism and the Sex Industry 81 (1996).

[FN4]. Id. at 81.

[FN5]. Id. at 82.

[FN6]. Id.

[FN7]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 81. “Slavery lasted until 1905. This left women to subsistence labour. They were also forced into an indentured polygamy and prostitution.” Id.

[FN8]. Id.

[FN9]. Jeffrey, supra note 2, at 11.

[FN10]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 81.

[FN11]. Id. at 130.

[FN12]. Jeffrey, supra note 2, at 14.

[FN13]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 104.

[FN14]. Jeffrey, supra note 2, at xii (“Women, mainly from the poorer province of Isan in the northeast and from the northern province of Chiang Mai, began to migrate to the areas outside American air bases in Thailand as well as to the urban centers where soldiers were taken for rest and recreation (R&R) leave.”).

[FN15]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 131-32.

[FN16]. Jeffrey, supra note 2, at xii.

[FN17]. Id. at xiii.

[FN18]. Id.

[FN19]. Seabrook, supra note 3, at 132 (“It was only in the 1980s that the recruiting and trafficking of young women and girls became industrialized, systematized by local and foreign traffickers, whereby the women were directly recruited in the villages for purposes of prostitution.”).


This article is published with the kind permission of Christa Foster Crawford. The article originally appeared in Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender, Summer 2006 issue.


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