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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 July 2007, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Thailand's child trafficking industry
By Thembi Mutch
BBC News, Thailand

A report from the US state department has criticised Thailand for not doing enough to combat the illegal trafficking of women and children from Burma, Cambodia, Laos and China. Thembi Mutch meets women and children who have been caught up in Thailand's trafficking business.

go-go bar
Many bar girls are sending money to their families back home
"I came with my aunt from the countryside to work in the seaside resort of Pattaya," Keng says. She pauses.

"I worked as a waiter in a bar near here. At first I didn't realise it was even possible for men to have sex with men, or boys, and at that time I still looked like a boy. I was only 16 and my family had various problems, so I was just working everything out."

Keng is 22, very slim, and now an incredibly beautiful woman.

The operation to change from a man to a woman took place last year. It cost her several thousand dollars, which she earned as a prostitute on the streets.

There is nothing about her that suggests she was ever male - her voice is soft and she is dainty and feminine. I find myself really liking her quiet dignity and gentle manner.

Map showing Pattaya, Thailand
"I do other work," she says. "I go to Bangkok, to the Grand Plaza or to the station, and collect boys between the ages of 11 and 13. I bring them back here to the bar. I usually try and get 10 boys or so, but if there have been police raids in Bangkok it can be harder to find boys.

"When I approach them I have to be very careful. For the first few days they obey me - some of them haven't eaten properly for weeks - but we still lock them in the attic at the bar, partly so they won't escape, partly so that the police or rescue agencies can't find them."

Child trafficking

Keng is a trafficker - a trafficker of children, into prostitution, mostly for Western men.

She tells me how she hires a van and goes to the countryside if she cannot find children in the city.

Keng herself was trafficked, says my researcher, and she is just as much of a victim, he argues, as the children she traffics. She has no other job options open to her, and she is shunned publicly in shops, restaurants and bars outside the red light district where she works.

Keng points to a child sitting on the road across from us: "That one," she says, "is from Cambodia. He was living on the street in Bangkok."

Later we interview this boy, Suni, who is jittery and incredibly nervous, and constantly smokes. He says he is 10.

He describes having sex with various men in a detached and disturbing way. He is more animated talking about the money he earns to play computer games or buy speed to get him through the night.

"You know," Keng says, "he has got a much better life with me than he ever had at home or on the street."

Groomed for sex

Prey Vang Province is one of the poorest regions in Cambodia. It is easy to cross from there into Thailand so each year thousands of children are trafficked across the border, often by parents.

In Buddhist cultures the debt owed to parents by children is deeply imbued into families, especially in the countryside where the idea of destiny is wholeheartedly embraced
One mother there told me how, two years ago, she had travelled to Pnomh Penh with three of her children to beg on the streets. She is illiterate, owns no land and this was a last, desperate bid to survive.

On the second day in the city, her nine-year-old girl disappeared. She is convinced her daughter was kidnapped for sex work.

Three other mothers she knows in the village tell a similar story.

In another village, a group of girls aged between seven and 13 tell me their experiences. They are articulate and open.

Four of them had been kidnapped and groomed for sex work for a month. They had travelled to the city with their families to beg, but once there, had been coaxed by the offer of a meal into a house in a suburb. Then they were locked away and made to watch pornography. Two girls escaped, and the other two were rescued.

Buddhist culture

In Buddhist cultures the debt owed to parents by children is deeply imbued into families, especially in the countryside where the idea of destiny is wholeheartedly embraced.

But poverty and a desire not to confront difficult issues - especially those around sexuality, rape and prostitution - means that many issues just get swept under the carpet.

Sometimes it is just greed that makes parents turn a blind eye to what they are letting their own children in for. But mostly, say the experts, it is ignorance and a lack of opportunities.

Those who have already been trafficked know the dangers. I asked the girls in the village what their advice to other children might be to avoid being preyed on by traffickers.

The youngest replies: "It's really difficult if your mum asks you to get money to feed the family, you want to help. But it's best to go to school, and not to beg."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 7 July 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Illicit trade on the Thai-Burma border
08 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Life as a Thai sex worker
22 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Thailand
31 May 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Thailand
31 May 07 |  Country profiles

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