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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 15, 2008

Young Thai girls still sold into prostitution

By Joel Brinkley

MAE SAI, Thailand In this little town on the Burmese border, parents sell their young daughters into sexual slavery for less than the cost of a toaster oven. These little girls, 11 or 12 years old, are forced to serve in brothels and cannot leave.

This has been going on for many years. I know this to be true. I was here before, in 2001.

Back then, brothel agents visited the schools to look over the fourth-graders. They offered cash down to parents of 8-year-olds for the right to buy their daughters when they finished sixth grade.

The agents dressed in business suits and called themselves professors. They told parents they would take their girls to good jobs in the city nannies, secretaries, etc. where they could also continue their educations. Instead, they were sold to brothels and held captive until they paid off that payment to their parents the cost of transport and numerous other charges piled on. That could take years.

I interviewed 12-year-old Noie Wongboonma, whose mother had just tried to pull her out of school and put her on the "bus to Bangkok," as everyone here refers to that trip to perdition.

"Sometimes my mother wants to sell me," she said, her head bowed. "I feel very sad that my mother would want to do that. I don't dare argue with her. But I don't want to go where my mother wants to send me."

I went home with Noie and met her mother, a blank-faced woman who had a part-time job peeling garlic. "Yes, a person offered Noie a job," she acknowledged. "I don't know where that person is from. I don't know what job. Maybe to sell herself. He said, 'Let her go to work with me, and you will get a lot of money.' He didn't say how much."

Today, agents still troll the schools. After all these years, thousands of girls from here have been forced into the trade. Many have died of AIDS or abuse. Some others have paid off their bondage. They are allowed to return home for the Buddhist New Year wearing spaghetti-strap blouses, garish bangles, sparkly makeup. The younger girls look at them, wide-eyed.

"These 11- and 12-year-olds, they go with the traffickers now because they want fancy clothes and mobile phones," said Ladda Benjatachah, who runs a government shelter for victims. The Daughters Education Program, a school in Mae Sai, tries to rescue young girls who are at risk of being sold. The teachers now see the trafficking problem passing through a worrisome transition. The school harbors 180 local girls. Brazen agents still stop by to flatter and wheedle the 12-year-olds when the teachers are not around. Mothers still try to pull their daughters out of school. As the school's Web site puts it, "they stand to gain much by selling their daughters."

But more often now, even when girls are given protection from the traffickers and the opportunity for a free education, some will instead sneak off in the middle of the night. "I've thought about it," said Santyod. (She would not give her last name.) When asked her age, she said "almost 13."

"You see them come back here with nice clothes, mobile phones. They go out drinking."

She and two schoolmates giggled, hands to their mouths. They sat on a couch, tight up against each other, glancing occasionally at the school director who sat by, watching without comment.

How can any government stand by and watch as this despicable practice continues and evolves, year after year? Part of the answer can be found in the offices of almost any police commander in Bangkok. Gift bags, dozens upon dozens of them, sit on the floor. Spilling out of them are bottles of whiskey, sweets, perfume or lingerie for the wife or mistress. Any cash that might have been tucked in next to the Chivas Regal will have been plucked out, but the bags remain as a display of the officer's power and corruption.

No gift bags sit on Visut Vanichbut's office floor. He's a police major general. The trafficking problem in Thailand, he says without any hesitation, "has gotten worse much worse" because "our people are more interested in the financial gains they can get from these activities."

Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Reach him at brinkley@foreign-matters.com.