Juan Miguel Petit, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of children, said in March that authorities in India, Cambodia and Thailand are often not willing to tackle the issue of children's sexual exploitation for fear of damaging their economies.
That seems to be changing in Thailand, at least.
Phuketwan asked Patchareeboon Sakulpitakphon, an official from ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) some specific questions about sex in Phuket.
How does Phuket rate as a place for the problems of the kind that ECPAT deals with in Thailand and elsewhere?
ECPAT International focuses on the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children (aka children in prostitution, child pornography, child trafficking for sexual purposes, child marriage and child sex tourism). In Phuket, we know that all forms of CSEC takes place there, with the exception of child marriages. While it is not as bad as Pattaya, we believe that Phuket seems to be an emerging place for the different forms of CSEC.
Is Pattaya as bad as some people say it is? In other words, how is the scale of prostitution measured in different centres?
Unfortunately, Pattaya is as bad if not worse than its reputation. By this I mean that children are easily available for commercial sexual exploitation. You can see the children victims (girls and boys) out in the red lights area at night, quite openly. There are regular reports coming in concerning children who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation (mostly child sex tourism and child pornography) in Pattaya. Years ago, Pattaya was a place where you could go to the beach with your family, but now it is not possible since Walking Street, the red light area, has completely taken over a large part of Pattaya beach. The scale of prostitution is measured by how open it is (or how underground) it is, the number of reports concerning children in prostitution, children who have been trafficked, child victims of child pornography or child sex tourism.
What are the differences between the traditional attitude to sex and prostitution in Thailand and the perception that most of the problems are generated by sex tourists?
It is the law in Thailand that all forms of prostitution, especially children, are ILLEGAL. However, the fact that this law is seldom enforced by the government and the police without any pressure from the public illustrates the social acceptance of the sex industry. However, I would like to point out that the public does not really know much about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and how it is tied to the sex industry. The public does not think that far or about consequences to Thai society in general. It is also a subject that the public is not willing to talk about or acknowledge yet. There are also many misconceptions about the reality of why boys or girls engaged in prostitution. Many people believe that the children are engaging the sex industry so that they can have a better life (children is anyone under the age of 18). At ECPAT, we believe that children cannot give their consent. It is not a real choice if the child is forced into sex in order to survive or pushed by circumstances, social structures or individual agents during moments of vulnerability.
The majority of child sex offenders are divided into three types: situational, preferential and paedophiles. Situational sex tourist abuse of children occurs by way of experimentation when the opportunity presents itself (it's not that they have a sexual inclination for children). Preferential child sex tourists have an active sexual preference for children, but he/she may still be attracted to adults at the same time. Paedophiles have an exclusive sexual inclination for pre-pubescent children. The majority of child sex tourists are situational, followed by preferential and then paedophiles being the smallest group. By nationality, the majority of offenders are Thai or Asian nationals (Japanese, Koreans, Chinese), then followed by European or Western nationals. Due to the lack of enforcement of the laws and underreporting, Asian offenders tend to escape prosecution. It's a lot easier to report a Westerner than an Asian tourist.
Are you able to provide me with case studies of women or girls who have been discovered in Phuket to be victims of the sex trade?
We only follow cases of children. Yes, there are reports of girls who are trafficked to Phuket, held there and forced to offer sexual services to local men and tourists. There was a case in the media where a 15 year old girl forced a 14 year old girl to offer her services to local men and tourists. When I was in Phuket in November, I heard of a case of a teenage girl being tricked by an Indonesian tourist into offering sexual services in exchange for goods, but she ended up pregnant and abandoned. It's not so easy to see cases of child sex tourism or child trafficking for sexual purposes in Phuket.
The good news is that we are now working with the tourism private sector to combat this problem. In Thailand, Accor Hotels and Evason Phuket have become signatories to the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. Accor and Evason Phuket have committed to enforce a policy against the issue, train their staff about the issue and report cases to the authorities. This is a big step forward and hopefully, it will increase the awareness in the community while at the same time protecting children.
What about the Burmese, who form a large element of the population in Phuket and surrounding provinces? Is there evidence they are subjected to sexual abuse?
Yes, Burmese children are definitely vulnerable and are more at risk than Thai children to commercial sexual exploitation. The children of minorities groups make up a large group of child victims in Thailand. It is hard to distinguish how many percent are of what nationality since it is already very hard to get the basic data concerning the number of cases.
How is it that girls under 18, or even under 15, can be '''trafficked'' to work as prostitutes in Phuket? Why don't their parents prevent this, or report it to police?
The most widely recognised and internationally legally adopted definition of child trafficking is of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It defines child trafficking as all acts involved in the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of children within or across borders for the purpose of exploitation. It does not need to involve the use of threat, force, other forms of coercion, or abuse of power. Also, the issue of consent of the child is irrelevant as the victim is a child and as such requires special protection from actions that carry consequences not fully known or understood and to which s/he therefore cannot consent. Also adhering to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child is anyone below the age of 18. When a child is trafficked and forced into prostitution, it also called commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), where the child is used as a sexual and commercial object in order to generate monetary profit.
Children can become victims of trafficking, just like adults, due to their circumstances, where they want a better life for themselves or their family due to poverty or the lack of real opportunities. Children are even more vulnerable than adults, because they have less influence on their own lives, less negotiation power and are often less protected by society. When children live under conditions that lack such a protective framework, they are more susceptible to entrapment in exploitative situations. The risks are increased when a child must seek shelter, food, basic necessities, or employment or when they are compelled to supplement income to support themselves or their families. Traffickers and the adults who facilitate access to children for trafficking realizes this fact and will exploit these vulnerabilities and abuse the power relations in order to manipulate and deceive children into compromising situations.
There are many cases of child trafficking where the parents are directly involved with the traffickers. For an exchange of money, some parents ignorantly believe that their child will be a nanny, housemaid, or a restaurant worker. Other parents know very well the truth, but are willing to exploit their child in exchange for money in order to buy alcohol, drugs, or material goods. There are recorded cases of villagers sending their daughters into the sex trade in order to have material wealth. A lifestyle has become more important than the well being of a child.
Many visitors think of karaoke bars as places where customers sing in small groups. Can you please explain the difference between the beer bars of Soi Bangla in Patong, which are familiar to most Phuket tourists, and Thai karaoke bars?
Karaoke bars are not the same as the usual karaoke venue and one must pay attention to a particular karaoke bar as there are various types. There are the legit ones, focusing on the mix of song singing and the selling of alcohol vs. the places that are a mere disguise for prostitution. The difference between beer bars and this type of karaoke bar is that the connection to prostitution is more pronounced in the latter and is more like a club atmosphere. The target group is also different, as Western tourists are more likely to visit beer bars and Asian tourists more the karaoke bar.
As prostitution is illegal in Thailand, why is it so obviously tolerated?
The majority of people in Thailand knows that prostitution is wrong and illegal but due to the weak enforcement of this law, it has become tolerated by society and more popularly avoided. Men's attitude about prostitution also is a factor as they are also the policy makers and law enforcement officials. Another aspect of this is that often it is the girls who are punished as criminals, while the owner and the buyers are not punished or even questioned. The demand side of the problem is often grossly overlooked. Lastly, the fact that the sex industry makes a large profit also contributes to its longevity and it being tolerated.
Would underage prostitution be reduced or wiped out if prostitution was legal in Thailand, as it is in many of the countries from which tourists come?
The legalisation of prostitution does not do anything to combat the demand for sexual relations with children. There is no clear evidence from any of the countries with legalised prostitution that they are better at protecting children from commercial sexual exploitation. It is often assumed that if it is legal, things will be controlled and monitored but in reality that is far from the case. In fact, law enforcement may have a more difficult time in carrying out investigations.
Some people believe Patong's nightlife offers a welcome diversion for tourists, including family groups out for a stroll in the evenings. Does ECPAT have a view about Soi Bangla after dark?
ECPAT International supports responsible tourism in all its forms, free from commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Is sex tourism to Phuket increasing, or decreasing?
Unfortunately there has not been a research to learn more about sex tourism in Thailand much less Phuket. Wheter it is increasing or decreasing, it is more important to note that sex tourism is a constant thing with serious implications for vulnerable children
Anyone with information about child sexual exploitation should call the ECPAT Secretariat in Bangkok on 02 215 3388 or email firstname.lastname@example.org