Thailand is notorious for nightlife areas catering to foreigners that blatantly advertise sexual services and some in the tourist sector fear a similar scenario could happen in Myanmar.
Trafficking horror stories from Thailand and Cambodia dominate the “sex tourism” narrative and fuel concern about its expansion in Myanmar.
But little is known about the intersection of sex work and tourism in the newly opened Myanmar. Non-government organisation Tourism Transparency was among the first groups to survey the prevalence of foreign clientele in the sex industry with its April 2014 report, An Analysis on Sex Work and Sex Tourism in Myanmar.
Through interviews with civil society representatives in Yangon the report found “sex tourism is not the problem some fear it is – yet.”
A disclaimer in the report says it does not intend to “criticise the choice of individuals or diminish the legitimacy of sex work as a choice or as a means of income. It merely intends to address the health, social and economic issues that are associated with sex work and sex tourism.”
The issue is not the sex industry per se but the lack of education about HIV and sexually transmitted infections and the potential for increased human trafficking, said Tourism Transparency founder Ms Andrea Valentin.
“I'm not sure if it is a problem as such; sex work is everywhere in every country all over the world – but I think there are some good practice examples from other countries on how to best deal with the sex industry and how to minimise negative impacts,” she said.
More tourists, more sex work?
Tourism is growing rapidly in Myanmar. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism says more than three million foreign visitors were expected in 2014, up from 2.04 million the previous year. The ministry is forecasting more than five million arrivals this year.
In collaboration with the Myanmar Tourism Federation and the Ministry of Tourism, Tourism Transparency published a brochure with 30 “dos and don'ts” for tourists which has been distributed throughout the country and advertised at airports.
The brochure encourages safe sex practices but warns that sex work is illegal, said Ms Valentin. The seeming contradiction was a compromise struck between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Health in an effort to avoid promoting sexual services to help curb the spread of HIV and sexu-ally transmitted infections.
Myanmar's tourist industry is looking to Thailand for best practices – and what needs to be best avoided.
“While it is argued that the increase in tourists would lead towards an increase in sex work, it was not believed that it would develop into a separate autonomous industry as it is in Thailand,” said the Tourism Transparency report.
'A domestic phenomenon'
Sex – and especially women's sexuality – is a major taboo in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country grappling with widespread sexism and discrimination against women.
Demand in the industry may be related to the shame attached to sex in Myanmar and lack of sexual education, said Ms Valentin.
Information from members of Sex Workers in Myanmar shows that Myanmar men are sustaining the industry, despite a widespread belief that foreign men comprise a big share of the clientele, said Ma Thu Zar, the chair of Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWIM), an advocacy group.
A similar observation is made in the Tourism Transparency report.
“With only very few [respondents] reporting foreigners as clients, the impression created was that the sex work industry in Myanmar is currently largely a domestic phenomenon,” it said. “Some of the few foreign clients tend to be expatriates living in Yangon and are not considered to be tourists as such,” it said.
“The customers in the Myanmar brothels are not tourists; we don't need to create a moral panic about foreigners coming in, they certainly don't drive the brothels here,” said Ms Valentin.
“This is a common misconception in Thailand also.”
However, the report pointed to border areas as regions with more foreign clientele and noted that foreigners tended to use condoms while locals did not.
A stigmatising label
The definition of sex tourism is widely disputed. The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines it as domestic or international trips organised “with the primary purpose of effecting a commercial sexual relationship by the tourist with residents at the destination”.
Tourism Transparency says its respondents defined “sex tourism” as “tourists coming into a country with the sole purpose of engaging in sexual activities, or tourists already in a country deciding to engage in sexual activities despite this not being the sole or initial purpose for their visit.”
Foreign residents and sex industry clients in Myanmar were not considered “tourists” among civil society respondents, said the report.
Thailand-based sex workers’ organisation Empower Foundation does not agree with or use the term “sex tourism” because it “encourages more stigma and discrimination,” members told Mizzima in an email.
“It sounds ugly and creates a false image of us as weak, sad women and our customers as big, white nasty men. It is a judgemental insult used by others about us; it does not come from our lived experience,” they said.
“There are not temple tourists, waterfall tourists, shopping tourists, sex tourists, resort tourists; there are just tourists who do many different things during their holidays, including having sex.”
The Empower Foundation was founded by sex workers and activists in 1984 in Bangkok's infamous Patpong nightlife entertainment district.
It has represented more than 50,000 sex workers and its members include sex workers from Thailand and migrant sex workers from countries such as Myanmar.
In contrast to mainstream conceptions of sex work as a profession the organisation does not view it as inherently “bad.”
“All women are conditioned from a young age to be afraid of being mistaken for a bad woman; it should not be an insult to be mistaken for a sex worker and yet this is often one of the reasons women's groups are so fiercely against sex work in tourism,” said members of Empower Foundation.
“They fight to disown and silence other women instead of addressing the hypocrisy and ongoing stigma; all blame is shifted to the sex worker.”
The foundation is calling on women's groups in Myanmar and throughout the region to show solidarity with sex workers to ensure safe working conditions “in the sex industry, in the home or in the parliament”.
Making the industry safer
Sex Workers in Myanmar is pushing for HIV prevention and better treatment and sex education for its 2,000 members.
HIV rates among women sex workers in Myanmar are high. An annual sentinel survey released in March 2013 by the government’s National AIDS Program put the prevalence rate of HIV among female sex workers at 8 percent.
The prevalence rate among members of the general population aged between 15 and 49 in 2013 was estimated at 0.6 percent, shows UNAIDS figures.
It is the lack of education and employment opportunities that lead many women to the sex industry, Ma Thu Zar Win told Mizzima at SWIM’s Yangon office.
“In our country we are not educated. You can wash clothes, do house work or do sex work. There is no choice and no chance,” she said. “The government is the root cause of this poverty.”
Sex work is considered “against Buddhism” and women in the industry are stigmatised more than those in other professions, she added.
The criminalisation of female sex workers is an extra barrier to employment, said Tourism Transparency. Under the 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act soliciting is an offence punishable by a jail term of up to three years.
Legalising sex work legal would offer more protection to sex workers including healthcare, help to prevent them from exploitation and potentially become a taxable industry, said Ma Thu Zar Win, referring to HIV prevention and progressive law enforcement strategies in Thailand.
“There is no place, no law, no protection for sex workers in Myanmar,” she said. “Sex workers work for their families and should be healthy for them too.”
Fear of prosecution deters sex workers from seeking health services and, at times, from carrying condoms. Nightlife hotspots such as Yangon's Mingalar Zei complex should have accessible healthcare services nearby, said Ma Thu Zar Win.
Development in the tourism sector must also be focused on the entertainment industry, says Empower Foundation.
“Infrastructure could include making sure popular entertainment areas have affordable housing or good public transport, health services, financial support for local sex worker organisations, scholarships for language study and child care,” said the foundation.
“Sex workers need to have the same protections and benefits as other workers and citizens; then we can use normal labour law to protect our rights, occupational health and safety standards to protect our health and wellbeing and access to justice if crimes are committed against us.”
-Additional reporting by Phyu Phyu Zin.
This Article first appeared in the January 1, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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