Tag Archives: sex work burma

Hidden identities – the policing of sex work in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 26 January 2014

A "dancing show" at Thiri Mingalar market in Yangon. The feather boa denotes that the woman has been "auctioned" to someone - not necessarily for sex.
A “dancing show” at Thiri Mingalar market in Yangon. The feather boa denotes that the woman has been “auctioned” to someone – not necessarily for sex.

Harsh, outdated laws and police corruption are hindering efforts to safely regulate Myanmar’s commercial sex industry

As a cool breeze blows through the open windows of a ramshackle house that serves as a massage parlour on the outskirts of Bago, the shrill sound of a mobile phone pierces the silence during yet another power cut. The manager of the massage parlour listens anxiously for a few seconds, then hangs up and says, “We’ll stay open tonight.”

The manager had been contacted by someone working at a nearby brothel who told him there was no need to worry about a police raid – for that night anyway.

As a pimp at the massage parlour explained, “Police are on a drive to make as many arrests as possible – the drive to fill certain quotas starts in December every year and continues until the end of January. We often have to shut for the night, or even a few nights – it’s not easy doing good business at this time of year. If the problems last too long, we’ll move to another house.”

The penalties for commercial sex work in Myanmar are tough: the Suppression of Prostitution Act (1949), adapted from a colonial law, provides for a jail term of up to three years for sex workers and up to five years for pimps. Clients, however, are not prosecuted under the law.

As the pimp explained, the massage parlour is in regular contact with the brothel – as well as local police officers, who warn of a possible raid in exchange for “protection money”.

“We have problems when police from outside Bago, such as Yangon or Naypyitaw, turn up un-announced,” he said.

The manager has been to prison several times – mostly for sentences of about six months.

“Whoever is on reception [when the police arrive] will go to jail, along with the women working here,” he said.

Krittayawan Tina Boonto from UNAIDS, who conducted a legal review of the laws surrounding commercial sex work in Myanmar last year, said police harassment is a major issue among sex workers.

“Sex workers spoke repeatedly of harassment – for example, a policeman will use a person’s reputation as a sex worker to arrest her, even after she stops being a sex worker. To get out of it the woman has to pay a bribe, which can include providing sexual services to police.”

Unlike Vietnam, which recently abolished the practice of keeping women in detention centres before they are charged for commercial sex work, Myanmar has two female detention centres in Yangon, and one each in  Twante and Mandalay.

“It’s a cross between a jail and a rehab centre. They are horrific. Women are forced to sew clothes and what not, before they are told whether they’ll be charged. It’s not at all voluntary – the women cannot leave. It’s not a solution we encourage,” said Anne Lancelot, the director of the Targeted Outreach Programme at Population Services International.

“Vietnam is now considering other ways to prosecute sex work; rather than forcing women to stitch bed nets in the detention centres, the government is considering introducing fines,” said Eamonn Murphy, the country coordinator in Myanmar for UNAIDS.

Inconsistency in the law

“The laws are impractical and difficult to enforce and are applied with varying degrees of severity. Those who are most disadvantaged tend to be the hardest hit and that’s unfair,” said Sid Naing, country director of Marie Stopes International.


Kay Thi Win, policy officer for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and founder of the AMA Sex Workers Network in Myanmar, which provides support to women who have been imprisoned for sex work, said “Evidence has shown that criminal penalties surrounding sex work drive the industry underground. It is in these unsafe settings with no protection from the law that sex workers are vulnerable to violence.”

Government figures for 2012 say there are 60,000 commercial sex workers in Myanmar, with a HIV/AIDS infection rate of 7.1 percent, compared to a rate of 0.5 percent among the general population.

Health experts say that while HIV/AIDS prevalence is decreasing among this risk group, their efforts to further reduce the infection rate are hampered by the harsh penalties for sex work, which can be a deterrent to seek health services out of fear of prosecution.

“The laws have very negative consequences on controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic because sex workers don’t want to get tested. It’s an extra barrier,” Sid Naing said.
There are other laws that affect safe sex practices – not just among sex workers but the general population.

Police can prosecute anyone considered to be “loitering with intent to solicit” – as well “loitering after dark without adult supervision.”

“There can be situations where a police will say to a woman, “You have condoms in your purse and you have been standing at this bus station for two hours – so you are obviously loitering and soliciting,” said Ms Lancelot. “Some people joke that with all the power cuts in Myanmar, almost any time can mean ‘after dark,’” she said.

“It’s impacting youth terribly,” she added.

Not enough condoms

Until a directive was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2000, possessing a condom could be used as evidence of sex work.

However, UNAIDS says most people are unaware of the directive – and this includes members of the police, who continue to use possession of condoms as circumstantial evidence to make arrests at the street level.

“There is a need for more comprehensive police instruction that prohibits police from interfering with the right of all persons to carry condoms for HIV prevention or contraception,” said Mr Murphy.

Until the situation changes, condom sales in Myanmar are likely to remain dangerously low. The biggest seller of condoms in Myanmar is PSI; it sells Aphaw brand condoms at a subsidized price of between 20 percent and 50 percent of the retail value.

“We distribute condoms free to sex workers and men who have sex with men, because they are most at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,” Ms Lancelot said.

“PSI sells 20 million condoms in Myanmar each year but that’s not that much for a population of 60 million or so. I think we need to be selling five times as much,” she said.

“People should be encouraged to buy condoms, even if they don’t use them. In a lot of cases, the mindset of police is still ‘no sex before marriage and marriages should be faithful’ in terms of public health. But in reality this is not what happens – so we should go where the reality is,” said Mr Murphy.

Thuza Win, the founder of the Sex Workers in Myanmar network (SWIM), an advocacy group for commercial sex workers, told Mizzima Business Weekly said that although prostitution is also illegal in neighbouring Thailand, where the World Health Organization estimates there are more than 200,000 sex workers, less severe policing tactics make it easier to spread health and legal awareness messages.

“I visited HIV/AIDS projects in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot and found that the sex industry is more regulated and that it’s easier to get condoms. It’s also easier to hold HIV/AIDS education sessions in Thailand, and to reach out to people with the disease,” said Ma Thuza Win.

“People in Thailand will admit they have HIV/AIDS, but in Myanmar, some prefer to die.”

High risk and no reward for the “in-betweens” of Burma’s sex industry

Published in DVB on 11 January 2014

A massage room in Bago
A massage room in Bago

No data exists about the number of women who work in the “grey area” of Burma’s sex industry, such as karaoke lounges and massage parlours. Yet even the most casual of observers cannot fail to notice the multitude of neon signs advertising “KTV” in virtually every metropolitan area across the country.

Although it’s “well understood that additional services may be provided” at these venues, the majority of managers on the premises will vehemently deny the fact that any sex work takes place when a health worker comes knocking on the door, said Eamonn Murphy, country coordinator for UNAIDS.

This is chiefly due to Burma’s stiff legal penalties against it. The Suppression of Prostitution Act (1949) was adapted from a colonial era law and stipulates a punishment of one to three years imprisonment for sex workers and pimps – however clients are not penalised. The legal definition of a brothel was broadened in 1998 to include any place used habitually for sex work, which Mr Murphy said was in response to a surge in the number of massage parlours and karaoke lounges.

“A lot of our outreach workers are told, ‘We don’t do sex work here so we don’t need condoms,’” said Anne Lancelot, director of Population Services International (PSI). PSI provides sexual health services in 330 of Burma’s 330 townships to those most at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, which includes sex workers, men who have sex with men and injecting drug users.

“But let’s be very clear – I don’t know of any KTV girl who is not engaged in sex work,” Ms Lancelot added.

While government data from 2012 estimates there are 60,000 sex workers in Burma, Population Services International (PSI) said the figure is closer to 80,000 – and that there are 15,000 sex workers in Rangoon alone. However Ms Lancelot added that due to the fragmentary nature of the industry in Burma, the figures are a “rough estimate”.

“Myanmar has no red light districts, other than in some border cities such as Muse. Overall it’s very scattered and the sex worker population is highly mobile,” she added.

A karaoke lounge sign in Yangon
A karaoke lounge sign in Yangon

“It’s not clear cut: sometimes the managers are telling the truth, because [sex] takes place at a nearby guesthouse rather than on the premises. Women are unlikely to tell their bosses about what happens with a client due to the illegal nature of their work – and there’s also a lot of confusion due to the stigma associated with it,” said Mr Murphy.

“Those in the grey area of the sex work industry are seriously left out of HIV/AIDS strategies and activities because managers are concerned that being categorised as a sex work venue could get them in deep trouble,” said Sid Naing, country director for Marie Stopes.

Ma Su (not her real name) works at a massage parlour in a derelict building on the outskirts of Pegu. The neighbourhood has around half a dozen massage parlours and three brothels, and at least 20 KTV venues exist throughout Pegu itself.

The 26-year-old said that she moved from Three Pagodas Pass to Pegu after she divorced her husband as a result of his gambling and alcohol addictions, as she didn’t want to return to living with her step-mother in Mawlamyine. Ma Su is paid 700 kyat for every hour she spends with a client and can only leave the premises between 5am and 10am. She is provided with free board in a dormitory in a separate building plus two meals a day, and she cannot take a day off unless she is sick.

Ma Su told DVB that Marie Stopes International was the only non-government-organisation she’d encountered whilst working at the massage parlour during the past year. Outreach workers had taken blood tests of the 10 women who were working there at the time.

“Everyone was fine,” she mumbled. Ma Su said that she didn’t want to discuss whether or not she has sex with her clients as she also doesn’t tell her bosses, but conceded that she was dependent on tips and that she is sometimes abused by her clients.

A person who spoke on condition of anonymity said that he brings about two foreign tourists to this particular massage parlour every month.

“They’re mostly from Japan and Korea. Others are from America and sometimes they’re European, though that’s very rare. Western tourists are very wary. They don’t want to go to prostitutes, so I bring them here.”

He said that foreigners are charged more than locals – up to K10,000 for 15 minutes as opposed to K4,000 for an hour and that they are charged more “if they don’t come out of the room in time.”

“The women get paid the same no matter what,” he said, and added that some of the women working there are 16 years old.

Ms Lancelot explained that a common scenario at KTV lounges is for an owner to pay a woman K30,000 for a month’s work, which may include going to a hotel with a client.

“Payment is made up front, which locks the woman into the deal. Officially nothing happens at the KTV lounge, although the karaoke rooms are locked. She may earn a lot more from a client, but it will all go back to the KTV owner,” she said.

Ms Lancelot added that there are a large number of brothels in Rangoon which don’t permit the women to leave at all. Health workers must negotiate with the pimps and madams to bring the women back after they visit one of PSI’s drop-in centres, which provides a range of sexual health services, as well as a safe place to relax.

“However in most cases the women prefer to be taken in by pimps because it’s a lot safer than being out on their own on the streets. And yet it’s borderline slavery – they’re living in bondage,” she said.