Book Reviews

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In Search of Sunlight

Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand

Pim Koetsawang

2001. 176 pp., 11 illustrations, map. 21.5 X 15.2 cm., softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-92-2 $17.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-92-2

All Roads Lead to Misery

Book review by Subhatra Bhumiprabhas

(The Nation, Bangkok, April 9, 2001)

Driven across the border by desperate circumstances at home, Burmese women are obvious targets for sexual abuse and exploitation, as their illegal status makes it impossible for them to demand their rights. Attempts to assist them have had little effect, Subhatra Bhumiprabhas reports. It is not difficult to find Thai women working in brothels in Germany or Japan, but it is much easier to find Burmese sex workers in Thailand.
    What makes these women decide to walk into an unknown future outside their homeland? “For a better income,” they will say. What they won’t tell you is: to achieve this goal they will live a miserable existence and be treated as though they weren’t human beings.
    “Sometimes…I feel I am worthless. But I have to be strong, right? I have to fight for my children. Our hometown is a tragedy. We don’t know what to do. It’s so painful to see young girls coming to sell their virginity… Who wants to be far away from their hometown? Who wants to be far away from the ones they love? It’s a hard life here. If we get arrested or die, our parents never see us again. It’s no fun at all that we have to sell our bodies,” says Hseng Kaew, a Shan woman from Mong Yang.
    Hseng Kaew is quoted in the book In Search of Sunlight: Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand, written by Pim Koetsawang. In 1993, the writer began five years of research into the fate of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand that resulted in the publication of her book in late 1998.
    Recently, Pim helped to organise a seminar entitled “Cooperation between the Government and Private Sector in Solving the Problems of Migrant Workers in Thailand” at the International YMCA Hotel in Chiang Mai.
Pim told the seminar that although several years had passed since she had written the book, she had found no improvements in the lives of Burmese migrant workers.
    Bupoe Yebeing or “Anna”, a Burmese woman at the seminar, confessed that she crosses the border to visit her hometown in Tachilek every week.
    “I go back to update other women in Burma about the conditions they will have to accept if they decide to work in Thailand,” said Anna. “I told them that they might make much more money than working in Burma, but they could be physically or sexually abused anywhere and anytime because of their illegal status.”
    Anna, now 29, migrated to Thailand with her parents when she was 13 years old, and for many years worked as a housemaid, baby-sitter and restaurant waitress. She has just been given Thai citizenship and is now waiting for her ID card.
Today, Anna helps EMPOWER Foundation (a non-governmental organisation that promotes opportunities for women), to organise a monthly workshop for sex workers in the Mae-Sai district in Chiang Rai province. She calls brothels in the Koa Sai area ‘Baan Sao’.
    “Most women who work in the Baan Sao in Mae-Sai are from Burma and can’t speak Thai. We invite them to attend our workshop and tell them how to prevent being infected with HIV-Aids,” said Anna who speaks Burmese, Akha, Tai and Thai.
As an NGO worker, she is allowed to speak to the 60 or so Burmese women who are working in 12 ‘Baan Sao’ in the Koa Sai area. From her conversations with these women, Anna has learnt much about how these women feel, and what was truly happening in the brothels. She confessed some of their stories left her speechless.
    “A woman who was four-months pregnant told me she wanted an abortion—this was while she was standing in front of her boss. But later she confided that the brothel owner had forced her to say that. In the end she fled, even though she still owed the owner Bt20,000,” said Anna, adding she hoped the mother and baby would be okay.
    “I know how difficult it is for illegal migrant women to find a safe place in Thailand. That’s why most women in Baan Sao don’t think about running away or working further from the border as long as they can’t speak Thai,” Anna added.
    The fate of these women is nothing new for Pim, who spent months visiting brothels as part of the research for her book. In one chapter, Pim tells the story of ‘Meena’, an 18-year-old Burmese-Indian woman from Marid, in Tenasserim Division, who was forcibly sold to a big brothel in a southern province of Thailand. Meena told Pim that the brothel’s owner bought her for Bt5,000 but she had to pay back Bt10,000 by sleeping with over 300 customers.
    “I got pregnant twice. The owner forced me to have it taken out. He brought a woman from Kaw Taungto do it. I was left to rest just for a few days and had to work again. My wages were eaten into for water, electricity, immigration police tea-money, abortions and so on, so we had not much left; I was arrested five times, and every time the owner paid me out, a thousand, three thousand baht, it depended. Then he deducted that cost from my wages again… You know, I ran away once but was caught and beaten… After that he didn’t allow me to go anywhere anymore.”
    “Most Burmese women are treated badly in Thailand either from their employers or the police,” says Anna. “They are discriminated against even in the brothels where they are always sexually abused, but dare not ask for help or justice because of their illegal status.”
    Anna knows that the government policy to allow illegal workers to continue working in Thailand until August 1 does not include Burmese women in brothels. What’s more, she isn’t trying to help these women to continue working here.
    “I just want to see them treated as human beings,” she said. Living along the border, Anna has seen the condition of women being sent back to Burma. Even though they had worked here, they were treated like animals and couldn’t even take their possessions back home, where they will also be discriminated against.
Anna still remembers when she was only 16 and didn’t have Thai nationality. “It was normal for the police to search your body anytime if you were non-Thai and came from Burma. I was lucky when the policewoman who found money that I hid in my bra took pity on me and didn’t tell the others about it,” she recalled.
    Many women from Burma have not been so lucky. Moreover, Anna is well aware that she is only a small player and can’t really do anything except give useful information to Burmese sex workers in Thai brothels and other women across the border.
    “For those who have already been arrested and are waiting to be sent back to Burma, I would like to see someone make sure they get home safely with their possessions they have bought after spending years working in trying conditions.
    “Although many of the women working in brothels in Tachilek told Anna they didn’t want to return to Thailand again, Anna still sees plenty of young Burmese women being brought to Mae-Sai district before being moved to other parts of Thailand.
    “There are a lot of brokers here. So what I would like to say is that it is useless to solve the problem of illegal migrant workers simply by arresting the women,” she said.

This is echoed by Pim at the end of her book:
“With the endless lust of some men, both Thai and foreign, the rapid expansion of trafficking networks has reaped huge benefits. And while many women have decided to seek a path into the light, some who have already left have returned to the shadow again and again. Moreover, a big new group of targets will be dragged into this dark tunnel, one by one, in an endless stream. Although the job of being a sex object might be one where, as Pin (one sex worker that Pim interviewed) put it, ”you could press the off button of feeling,“ the fact is that all women are warm with the same blood. They have emotions and complex feelings. They have both beautiful dreams and painful despair. Whilst each life may not be characterised as a bitter tragedy, the trade in women as mere goods and the perception of women as sex objects, are definitely among the ugliest of shames of human beings.”

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