Friday, November 28, 2003

Peter Goodspeed

Thailand touts sex tax as huge revenue stream

Government debates legalizing a notorious and profitable trade

The sex trade in Thailand is as subtle and discreet as an elephant stampede.

Since the days of the Vietnam War, when tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops flocked to the country for brief periods of "rest and recreation," Thailand has reigned unchallenged as the Sin Capital of Asia.

A freewheeling sex industry pervades the ancient kingdom. Bangkok, the capital, is filled with thousands of circus-like sex clubs, go-go bars, hostess clubs and massage parlours. Sidewalk touts and taxi drivers constantly offer tourists and businessmen introductions to "pretty girls" or directions to live sex shows in some nearby nightclub.

The decadent delights of Patpong, Pattaya, Soi Cowboy and the Nana Plaza are spoken of around the world. But in Thailand itself, people have long been reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the trade or its impact on Thai society.

Prostitution has technically been illegal in Thailand since 1928. But now, the cash-strapped government of Thailand has begun a public debate on whether prostitution should be legalized.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Justice hosted a one-day conference on the issue in Bangkok and invited 300 special guests, ranging from academics to streetwalkers, feminists and massage parlour owners, to discuss the state of Thailand's sex industry and the implications for possible future regulation.

Phongthep Thepkanjana, the Justice Minister, says there will be no rush to legalize prostitution. He says the government just wants to get a sense of what Thailand's 63 million people think about the sex trade.

Government advisors have suggested that legalizing prostitution will give an estimated 220,000 Thai sex workers access to social services, health care and protection from abuse. They hope legalization will also help eliminate the web of corruption that surrounds the politicians, police and business owners associated with the sex industry.

Legalization will also supply the Thai government with a substantial new revenue stream.

Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's Prime Minister, has touted the possible legalization of prostitution, along with legalized gambling, as a strategy for boosting Thailand's economy.

Since prostitution is now illegal, brothel owners and most prostitutes don't pay taxes. But they pay millions of dollars in bribes and hush money to corrupt policemen and politicians.

A recent study by the National Economic and Social Advisory Council says that massage parlour owners alone pay a staggering US$114-million a year in police bribes.

One of the featured panelists at yesterday's forum in Bangkok was Chuwit Kamolvisit, a 42-year-old massage parlour owner who has become an unlikely crusader for civic virtue in Thailand.

He employs up to 2,000 women in half a dozen Bangkok massage parlours that have names like Emmanuelle, Victoria's Secret and the Honolulu Love Boat. Last May, he was arrested by police and charged with running a brothel that employs underage girls. (The legal age for consensual sex in Thailand is 15.)

If convicted, Mr. Chuwit could face 20 years in jail.

But that doesn't bother him as much as feeling he was ripped off by the police, who, he says, had been shaking him down for some US$290,000 in bribes and payoffs each month.

Infuriated by the hypocrisy of a legendarily corrupt justice system that lives off the sex industry, Mr. Chuwit went public with his problems, holding daily news conferences outside the Prime Minister's office, where he told reporters which officials he had paid bribes to, and demanding that prostitution be legalized.

He said he plied police with cash, Rolex watches, cars and free services at his massage parlours for years. But they did nothing to help him when he was charged.

Now, he wants the entire sex trade legalized to eliminate the vicious circle of bribery and illegitimate income.

The demand has both enthralled and divided Thailand.

Buddhist leaders reject the proposal on moral grounds. Feminists argue legalization will do nothing to improve the rights of female sex trade workers and will only entrench the industry.

"We're trying to communicate to people that sex workers are human beings and deserve education, social welfare and basic human rights," says Chantiwapa Apisuk, a founder of Empower, an organization that works to educate sex workers and the public about Thailand's sex industry. "Under the present system, they can't get these."

As long as prostitution is illegal criminals will be the employers and the employees will be "sex slaves," says Ms. Chantiwapa.

Some bar owners and prostitutes fear any move to amend existing laws will only end up lining the government's pockets.

"If prostitution becomes legal, we won't have to hide from the police and would have recourse against customers who are violent or refuse to pay," one sex worker, who asked not to be named, told the Bangkok meeting.

Other sex workers fear the government might force prostitutes to register with the police — a move, they say, that would stigmatize them for life and leave them vulnerable to blackmail.

Still other Thais argue decriminalizing prostitution will solve nothing.

"If it is about the dirty police force, clean it up. Legalization will not help," says Virada Somswasdi, a social science professor at Chiang Mai University.

An editorial in the Nation newspaper in Bangkok dismisses the entire legalization debate as being "marred by ridiculous hypocrisy, cloaked in ludicrous prudishness."

Massage parlour owner Chuwit, who started the latest round of soul-searching, agrees.

"You know how many politicians in my massage parlour?" he recently asked an Australian television reporter. "A lot. When they have to lobby someone, they will come to my place. They always talk about the good thing, about the morals, our society should not do this thing or that. But in the evening, they come to my place."

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Created: January 10, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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