Sex in grey areas (2): how the junta threatens the lives of sex workers

Bribes are unavoidable for businesses that operate in the grey market. Sex businesses must forfeit considerable sums of money to the authorities to persuade them to turn a blind eye to sex work, especially if their businesses operate in tourist districts. 
June (pseudonym), a 39-year-old ‘bar girl’ from Ao Nang in Krabi Province, recounts that each week the ‘bar’ owner provides a list of sums of money to be given to various government departments. Like clockwork, representatives from those departments come to the ‘bar’ to collect the bribes.
In June’s capacity as the bar’s de facto accountant, she remembers that few departments sought out bribes in the past. But after the coup in 2014, the number of departments demanding ‘kickbacks’ grew.
‘Once a man swaggered into the bar and said that he was from Region 8 and said that he was here to collect money. He said that we had to pay. Otherwise, he would have the bar closed. I didn’t have an issue with the money per se. No matter what, we have to pay. But why didn’t he speak nicely to us? He said he came from Region 8 but who is Region 8? What does it do? I still don’t know. When I asked why we had to pay the sum, he said his boss ordered him to come,’ recounts June. 
‘Region 8’ is not the only department that has paid a visit to June — there have been visits from ‘the provincial police’, the ‘investigations division’, ‘division 2’, ‘division 5’ and many more. 
According to June, each department demands between 1,000-2,000 baht. While in the past, the bar forfeited around 2,000-3,000 baht in bribes each week, that amount has now risen to 10,000 baht a week after the coup. On top of these regular payments are ‘tokens of kindness’ that officials demand now and then, such as for festivals or senior police officers’ birthday parties, which cost 500-1,000 baht each.
These officials do not provide evidence of the payments, nor does June have any way of determining whether they genuinely are department representatives. They never present IDs before collecting the money. Still, June has little choice but to pay the bribes to whoever these men are, out of a desire to avoid trouble. 
When Prachatai contacted Ao Nang’s local government, the Tambon Administrative Organization (TAO), Suphot Chotchoi, a representative, denied any part by the TAO in these monetary exchanges. Supot insisted that the TAO’s only responsibilities with respect to service businesses are to check that the premises meet health and safety standards. 
“There are three types of service businesses in Ao Nang district. First, there are more than 40 four and five-star hotels. Second, there are small hotels and resorts. These make up 70-80 per cent of service businesses. Third, there are entertainment venues. There are about 13-14 of these businesses along a street, and there are 4-5 more along the beachfront. Our responsibilities are to check whether they are properly registered, whether their safety procedures are adequate, and whether they have an adequate waste management system yet.” 
While the law prohibits sex work in Thailand, bribes involve big money for authorities. If we roughly multiply June’s sums by the number of bars stated by the Ao Nang TAO, ‘officials’ collectively reap as much as 800,000 baht a month. 
Although sex workers in Ao Nang report that they have no idea what becomes of these funds, they are relieved that authorities do not interfere with their work once bribes are paid. 
But in some regions in Thailand, the authorities demand more than bribes from brothels. Sex workers in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon, face harassment from the authorities despite their employers paying bribes of up to 3,000 baht a day. 
In Mahachai, the world of brothels frequently mingles with the world of migrant workers in the local fish industry, both legal and undocumented.
Pla, a former sex worker turned volunteer at the women’s rights organisation, the Empower Foundation, recounts that police cars patrol the brothel zones every night. They do not look for sex workers so much as undocumented foreign workers who come to visit the brothels. Any workers without work permits are promptly arrested and forced to pay bribes to be set free.
In the past, the authorities rarely interfered with brothels themselves, and were concerned primarily with cracking down on illegal migrant workers. But as in Krabi, the lives of sex workers in Mahachai have changed since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) came to power.
Pla told Prachatai that rising bribes were the first sign of the change. While in the past, brothels might have paid some 2,000 baht a day in bribes, that sum has now risen to 3,000 baht a day. But the most massive effects came with the passage of the NCPO’s Managing Alien Workers Act. 
Before the NCPO came to power, foreign workers comprised a sizeable segment of sex workers’ customers in Mahachai. However, the strict penalties against illegal workers set by the NCPO convinced many foreign workers to return to their home countries. Pla estimates that the Act resulted in a 40 per cent drop in her brothel’s clientele. 
Jiw (pseudonym), a brothel owner, also began facing challenges after the 2014 coup. For the first two years of the military government, her business mostly remained the same and could make between 20,000-30,000 baht a month, and up to 40,000 baht during holiday periods. But she estimates that the NCPO’s harsh measures on foreign workers have resulted in a decline in business of more than 90 per cent. These days, her brothel makes a loss rather than a profit. 
“If it stays like this, I’ll probably have to close down. I just can’t survive. I’ll have to find other work. For my employees, if they have two or three clients a night, that’s enough to make a living but I can’t. I have to find the money to pay water bills, electricity bills, bribes and 1300 baht a day for rent. Now I can still make ends meet. But if it stays like this until the end of the year [2017], many brothels may have to close down.” 
“Before Prayuth came, on paydays, festivals, public holidays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, there were lots of clients. People in the streets round here would be bumping into each other. All the workers hoped to make money. These days, you don’t have to hope. It’s all down to luck. At the end of the month and weekends there are few clients.”
Streets that were once lively with people are now empty, the exception being patrolling police officers. These days, however, they are targeting the sex workers themselves. 
Pla reports that after the 2014 coup, the authorities began randomly checking sex workers more often — searching specifically for drugs or condoms. Officials argue that having condoms implies prostitution. Some workers are let off with a minor fine, but unlucky brothels may be closed for two or three days, but still have to pay daily bribes. 
“In the past, when there was a fight in a bar, we would call the police and have to wait hours. By then, the people fighting had all gone back home. But these days, I see the police more often than my husband,” Pla says and laughs. 
Also, the authorities often ask sex workers for active ‘cooperation’ in their crackdowns on prostitution. Pla explains that when the police are trying to meet annual quotas, they ask brothels to send one or two workers to report to the police station. The workers are then made to give their fingerprints and pay a fine of between 100-200 baht. Although the sum is relatively small, the workers walk away with criminal records. 
But all of the above describes only the actions of the local police — who are cute and cuddly when compared with Thailand’s national police force from Bangkok. Sex workers have no way of knowing when Bangkok police will spring an inspection, when the authorities forcibly enter the back rooms of brothels where the girls work. 
In the worst case Jiw remembers, the police raided when a sex worker was serving a client and accused her of human trafficking. She had to pay as much as 50,000 baht to get free and that was an ‘unofficial’ fine.’ An official punishment would have presumably been even worse. 
“He turned and asked how much I could give them. At first, I said 20,000 baht, but he wouldn’t accept it. So I said that all I had was 30,000 baht, he still wouldn’t take it. So I asked him how much he wanted. He said he wanted 50,000 baht. I called one of the girls at the bar and asked her to collect 1,000-2,000 baht from the others. We managed to get the other 20,000 baht, which the worker brought to the police station. After that, the officer released me.”
While the NCPO views the sex industry as the cause of human trafficking, sex work is also voluntarily chosen by many as a means of making a living — a distinction that the junta’s policies do not recognise. In this way, the government’s crackdown on the sex industry is pushing many workers away from the jobs that support them. 
Fear of police interference has convinced many sex workers to leave permanent establishments in favour of freelancing by advertising themselves on the internet. But as Prachatai’s previous instalment of ‘Sex in Grey Areas’ found, independent sex workers are at higher risk of abuse at the hands of clients and face critical financial burdens. 
The Thai government’s harsh policies against sex workers are pushing many workers into a precarious position. But of course, to blame the NCPO alone is unfair. The junta’s crackdown on sex work has been enabled by general support from Thai society, where sex work continues to carry a significant social stigma. 
So how should society view sex work, so that the dignity of sex workers is upheld?
Branding sex workers as ‘sources of disease’, ‘sluts’ or ‘lazy’ is not only a distortion of the truth but marginalises them to the fringes of society. But neither are all sex workers ‘victims’ of sex trafficking, poverty or a patriarchal society. Such discourse serves only to give legitimacy to the Thai government’s heavy-handed management of the industry. 
One sex worker imparted the following advice to this writer. Perhaps they are words that may help the rest of society see the stories of sex workers with clarity:
“When you write about us, don’t view us as bad women or promiscuous women. At the same time, you don’t have to write that you feel sorry for us and we are always victims. Just write that I am just one worker who has not got the basic rights that I should get. Only that is enough.” 
Military officers usually assist police in raiding brothels (Photo from Khaosod)
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