Trafficked into misery

The Mae Hong Son sex trafficking scandal, featuring underage teen prostitutes, has opened a can of worms after the province’s governor Suebsak Iamwichan and senior police officials were implicated for their alleged involvement.

Suebsak is believed to have links with human trafficking operations. The prostitution ring was exposed after complaints were made by Mae Sariang assistant district chief, Boonyarit Nipawanit, who accused Suebsak of ignoring his duty in preventing girls from being trafficked into prostitution.

Among the controversial and rather bizarre issues hotly being discussed on social media ensuing the arrests of the sex ring perpetrators and the governor is whether having consensual sex with minors in fact validates the actions of the adults that purchase their services.

The discussion in itself is being deemed by child right activists, NGOs and a section of the public as a vain attempt by supporters of the accused to help lessen public condemnation and the vileness attached with such an act.

Child rights activist Ticha Na Nakorn together with children and women’s rights groups recently lodged a petition with Permanent Secretary for Justice Charnchao Chaiyanukij, calling for the Department of Special Investigation to accept the Mae Hong Son sex scandal as a special case. Photo: Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

Alliance Anti-Trafic, a non-profit, non-partisan and non-religious organisation that aims to protect women and children in Southeast Asia from sexual exploitation and trafficking, recently held a seminar to get to the bottom of a number of issues that have risen from the Mae Hong Son underage prostitution scandal.

First issue on the table was the disputable issue of condoning the actions of senior officials that were implicated in this case because the underage victims were willing parties.

Addressing the issue head on was director of Baan Kanjanapisek Juvenile Vocational Training Centre, Ticha Na Nakorn, who said that as minors the question of consent doesn’t even arise because of their level of maturity.

“Even if the child is agreeing and consenting, they are still underage and shouldn’t be taken advantage of in this manner,” remarked Ticha. “As a mature adult, it falls on you to question what makes these girls do what they do. You should know you are enabling them to go on a path that will eventually ruin their life.

“By saying that it is your right to buy the services of an underage prostitute because it is consensual just doesn’t ring true. The public has to put their foot down on such practices. It is my earnest hope that this case will be used to start an awareness campaign to help erase such practices.

“If patrons of such services condone their act by reasoning that it is the child that has come on her own accord to a hotel room to prostitute herself, than I would like to hypothetically ask you one thing.

“If you are suggesting that the child has that much maturity to know the consequences of such an act, then why don’t we amend the law so children can become prime minster? Leave the country’s fate on the shoulders of the child. The reply would be that they are only children; how can they know anything about governing a nation. This comes to prove the double standards such adults have when it comes to pushing their own agenda.”

“When it comes to saving their skin, then they condone their actions without the blink of an eye,” Ticha added. “As adults, it is our duty to protect such vulnerable children from making wrong decisions. I honestly believe such individuals have their priorities mixed up.”

The “unofficial tradition” of offering the sexual services of underage girls to please senior officials newly assigned to work in an area continues to go on unabated because the practice is rooted in “rolling out the red carpet for ones superiors”.

To address issues that have risen from the Mae Hong Son scandal, Ticha said the government has to get involved. She wants a group be put together to research whether it is the enforcing of the law that is impeding progress in rooting out such practices or the law itself that needs to be amended.

Addressing the media’s role in keeping the public aware of taking a stand in such matters, Ticha said a greater effort should be made in addressing factors that lead to such practices.

Ticha believes materialism is the main driving factor behind a number of youngsters’ decision to prostitute themselves.

Poverty, coupled with a dysfunctional family background, offers these children little hope for the future. She said living in a materialist environment is their only way out, and so they feel the best way to purchase material goods is through prostitution, because it offers quick money.

The education system has also failed them. Poor families often encourage their children to support them by bringing in an income instead of attending school. This can often lead them to prostitute themselves, making it even more crucial for schools to play a more hands on role in the lives of their students.

Ticha said it is high time society stops blaming children and starts trying to determine where as adults we have gone wrong.

Siriwan Vongkietpaisan, attorney at SR Law Firm, said this case has opened the debate as to why, despite having laws to address prostitution, we are still not able to enforce them effectively when it concerns a prominent person in society.

“The current law on prostitution has to be amended to focus on the well-being of the victim, in this case the child. There are loopholes in the law that perpetrators use for their advantage because of the ambiguous nature of how the law is written.

“While laws take time to amend, what we can do right away is for the public to protect the victim. Here I mean keeping sensitive information of these children and their families under wraps. Unfortunately, this is not happening as you see on social media, where the public feels at liberty to share information pertaining to both victims and accused alike. This information can adversely affect their case in court if we don’t put a stop to it.” Pongnarin Nonkam, vice-president of the Children and Youth Council of Thailand, said it is about time the government prioritises the well-being of the Thai child by investing tangibly in their lives.

“The budget for youths is so low that it is a shame. They are the future of the country. There are a sizeable number of children that view their future as being bleak, because for one, they lack opportunities to explore their talents and skills because their families are cash-strapped.

“Children need to keep their minds occupied with creative activities so they will focus less on how to obtain material goods in the form of expensive mobile phones and attire.

“I do believe if they have more options they will not turn to prostitution.”