Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9820
May 19, 1998


Khin Ohmar, Burmese Women’s Union

Yanila Azize Vargas, The Foundation Against Trafficking in Women

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

DOMINICAN WOMAN: [via a translator] I went into an ice cream shop one afternoon. This man
working there asked if I would like to go to Spain to do domestic work for his wife.

DOMINICAN MAN: [via a translator] They gave me 1500 pesos for every woman I found. Some
knew they would be prostitutes. But many didn’t.

WOMAN’S VOICE: [via a translator] I was tricked. They told me prostitution was illegal and
no harm would come to me.

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Women and girls around the world are being lured, abducted or sold
into forced prostitution and involuntary marriage. On this edition of Common Ground, we
look at two regions where this practice goes on. Common Ground is a program on world
affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray

BURMESE GIRL: [via a translator] At that time I couldn’t speak Thai. I couldn’t understand
anything. I just had to nod my head.

DAVIDSON: This teen-age girl from Burma is a prostitute working in a brothel in
neighboring Thailand.

BURMESE GIRL: [via a translator] Clients beat me on my shoulder. It was a big black
bruise. It was bleeding and was very painful. But the owner did not give me any medicine.

DAVIDSON: Of the estimated 1 million women and children who work in the Thai sex industry,
40,000 are from Burma. Some are just girls, as young as 12 or 13 years old. These girls and women
may leave the country voluntarily says Ohmar Khin of the Burmese Women’s Union, but rarely do
they know they’re going to be prostitutes.

OHMAR: Those pimps, they actually also run back into Burma, run one into the remote areas.
They actually, like, even like some pimps even marry. They marry and they actually, you know,
like ask for the permission from the girl’s parents in the small village where farmers live very
simple and honest people. And without knowing that the guy is pimp. They actually let their
daughter marry with him. Then he sells his wife into the brothel. So there are cases like that.
And they are like, big as the business become bigger and bigger. And Thai brothel owners, their
demand for the young Burmese women becomes much bigger. So, people go into the far remote area of
Burma, try to get as young virgin girls as possible. And try to persuade like, you know, actually
trick their parents. “Look, we have better jobs. Jobs for your daughters in Thailand.” Some don’t
even say in Thailand because if they say in Thailand the parents wouldn’t allow them to bring
their daughters. So they just said, “Look, in Rangoon—the capital city—there are jobs available
for your daughters.” Like household jobs or babysitting or dishwashing or whatever.

DAVIDSON: And there’s been a very serious economic decline in Burma in the last decade.

OHMAR: Yes. Yes, really seriously declined. People just hardly find a living in the
country. And especially for the women.

DAVIDSON: And because of the civil war a lot of women are left to head the households.

OHMAR: That is correct. Yes, yes. Because the men are either in the government army side
or in the ethnic people side. You know, just join the army and go into war at an early age. So,
women become the only ones to actually take care of the elderly and the children. Both.

DAVIDSON: And they usually weren’t saying “Your daughter is going to be a prostitute?”

OHMAR: No, not at all. And people just, because in Burma it’s like people just live a very
simple life, that they just don’t know there are things like that going on in the world, or
there, they just simply believe whatever the agent told them. And then there is the money right
in front of you, advance money. And they say, “Oh, this is the money that you can, we will give
you for like 6 months of your daughter’s pay. And then she can come and visit you. We’ll bring
her to come and visit you. Or you can go and visit her. You just let us know we will actually
help you to get to Rangoon.” And even like leaving an address which is actually fake address.

DAVIDSON: Four decades of civil war and an increasingly desperate economic situation in
Burma have made these women and girls an easy target to come-ons for a better life. Some of the
women being trafficked are actually refugees. There are a million Burmese refugees living along
the border with Thailand, India, Bangkok and China. Most of the refugees began fleeing after the
1988 pro-democracy uprising in Burma, which Ohmar Khin took part in.

OHMAR: The human rights atrocities committed by the present ruling military regime,
because of that all the factors are leaving no choice for the people of Burma, but just to leave
and flee outside their home and country and become refugees across the border in the neighboring

DAVIDSON: And most of these people have fled just in the last decade, is that correct?

OHMAR: Mainly in late ’80s—yeah, in late 1980s and then 1990, all the last years. I’ll
say about like 14-15 years ago. Most of the refugees actually cross the border. Yeah.

DAVIDSON: Why did you yourself leave ten years ago?

OHMAR: Well, I was involved in the nationwide pro-democracy uprising. That was in 1988, a
year prior to the Tiannamen Square, Chinese student movement. We had a nation-wide explosion in
the country against the military rule and military oppression. And I was a student studying, and
that nation-wide uprising was primarily led by the students like myself.

DAVIDSON: And you were a teen-ager at that time.

OHMAR: I was, yeah. I was studying chemistry at the university in capital city. Yeah. And
I had to leave home because I had, I didn’t have, I don’t have other choice. Because the military
regime actually killed more than 3,000 people during the uprising. And also they started
arresting primarily the students who are the main organizers, who are the leaders of the
movement. And I had to leave home because we, I, myself and my friends, we were being chased by
the military intelligence. And like after three of my close friends got arrested then I had to
leave home to come to the border with Thailand.

DAVIDSON: Khin was fortunate to make it out of Thailand and on to the United States. She
was an illegal immigrant in Thailand, and Khin says the refugees are sometimes subjected to
brutality, rape and deportation back to Burma. For the Burmese women being transported into Thai
brothels, the border ordeal can be just the beginning of a long nightmare involving corrupt
officials and police working in concert with brothel owners and the traffickers.

OHMAR: Once they get to the border, Burmese-Thai border, there are of course Burmese
authorities, immigration and stuff. So, for the accents they have to actually, in order to be
able to bring the girls across the border, what they have to do is they actually have to bribe
the authorities on the, at the border. So they either bribe them with money or they either
actually let—see the girls are actually raped right at the border by the Burmese authorities.
Because without knowing that they will be facing that situation, they actually were hoping to
actually go and work at the restaurant or at a house, to like, take care of the babies or
whatever. And then once they get, they were taken with a car, and they had never been out of
their village for their whole life, they don’t have the education, and then are brought by the
agents right at the border, they were sent into the room where they army officers are there, and
they were actually raped by the officers there. Before they were actually brought out of the
country into Thailand. And then they crossed the border into Thailand. There are the Thai
authorities and Thai authorities, like the border federal police and those Thai officers, they
have the deal with the Thai brothel owners. So they get the money from the owners already. So
they are the ones actually helping with the transportation for the girls to get to the brothels.

DAVIDSON: According to a 1993 report from Human Rights Watch, virtually all women and
girls trafficked into forced prostitution are controlled through what’s termed “debt bondage.”
The initial debt is usually a payment to a woman’s family at the time of recruitment, which she
must repay, with interest, by working in a brothel. The debt mounts as the brothel owners add on
the costs of food, clothes, medicine and other expenses, and escape is virtually impossible
without repaying the debt, since leaving the brothel puts the woman at risk of punishment by the
brothel owner, his employees, or the police, and/or arrest as an illegal immigrant. These women
are terrified of being deported back to Burma’s military rulers, making them even more
vulnerable. Ohmar Khin says brothel owners are now using prostitutes themselves to go back home
and recruit new women.

OHMAR: The trafficking started in late ’80s. Before 1988, according to our research, we
know there were like a number of, not a large number, but some women from Burma who were
prostitutes inside the country already, crossed the border into Thailand and looked for a better
economic situation. But they didn’t know that they would be sold into brothels or they would be
actually like, controlled by the pimps and brothel owners in Thailand. So they voluntarily left
Burma to enter into that business. But once they entered, what happened is because of their
vulnerability as illegal immigrants in Thailand, speaking no Thai language, and having no legal
document or legal status to live in and work in Thailand, so what happened is they are kept in
the brothels or they are actually threatened by the pimps. And their brothel owners said, “Look,
if you want to earn more money you go back to the village or wherever you come, and bring more

DAVIDSON: So go back to your home town and bring us some more women.

OHMAR: Right. So in that way those who were the first comers to Thailand and after they
have learned that they can earn more money or they would be able to leave the brothel, you know,
freely, and work without being harassed by the owners, and forced by pimps, they can do that if
they bring more people from inside the country. And those are like a primary agents, or the

DAVIDSON: Prior to joining the Burmese Women’s Union, Ohmar Khin worked for Refugees
International, meeting with Burmese prostitutes in Thailand.

OHMAR: Well, I couldn’t go into the brothels because I myself am Burmese, a young woman.
So, I met with a number of young women who were rescued or you can even say arrested. Because
they were arrested by the Thai police but then, in a way they were rescued from the brothels, but
then they were put in the women’s detention center in Bangkok. And that’s where I met a number of
young women and heard their stories.

DAVIDSON: Are they safe there?

OHMAR: Well, there’s, in a way, but they get a certain kind of abuse in there too. But
that’s, at least they don’t have accept 10-15 clients every night. And you know, like being
beaten up by the pimps. But they are kept there for, you know, they just don’t know what will
happen to them, really.

DAVIDSON: And what does happen to them?

OHMAR: Well, some of them are actually deported back to Burma, into the military’s hand.
And then once they are found to have, be having HIV and AIDS, then they are kept in, again in the
women’s detention center in Burma. And where they get no treatment at all. And cut off from their
families and…

DAVIDSON: And do they just die there?

OHMAR: We have heard there’s like, yeah, some die, some died, and actually we even heard
there are cases that the officials themselves give the injection to the young women.

DAVIDSON: An injection of what?

OHMAR: The cyanide injection. Because that was the first group, first young women, 9 of
them were sent back. And they were actually given the cyanide injection. Because they were found
to have AIDS already.

DAVIDSON: Because they had AIDS they were killed?

OHMAR: Right.

DAVIDSON: You don’t have any idea how widespread this is or how often this happens?

OHMAR: There hasn’t been, like any, a series of deportations from the Thais yet. So if the
Thai’s do that deportation, that would be, that kind of abuse we would see quite often. No doubt
about that. But the thing is the business itself is very underground.

DAVIDSON: Is prostitution legal in Thailand?

OHMAR: It’s not legal, but it’s the largest I guess in the world—at least in Asia.

DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. And when we return we’ll focus on women
being trafficked from Latin America. You’re listening to Common Ground, a program on world
affairs, sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. The Stanley Foundation is a non-profit,
non-partisan organization that works to promote thought and dialogue about the world. Tapes and
transcripts of Common Ground programs are available. At the end of the broadcast, I’ll
give you information on how to order.

DAVIDSON: The U.S. State Department estimates that anywhere from 1-2 million women and
girls are trafficked annually around the world, generally for the purpose of forced labor,
domestic servitude or sexual exploitation. This young woman from the Dominican Republic said she
wanted to leave her impoverished country for a better life abroad:

DOMINICAN WOMAN: [via a translator] I went into an ice cream shop one afternoon. This man
working there asked if I would like to go to Spain to do domestic work for his wife. It didn’t
seem odd to me, because I have a sister who’s been in Venezuela for 12 years working as a
domestic. And I thought it would be the same for me.

DAVIDSON: It turned out the ice cream shop was a front for a prostitution ring and when
she arrived in Spain she was taken to a brothel. This man worked for one such prostitution ring,
scouting out new young women for the business.

DOMINICAN MAN: [via a translator] They gave me 1500 pesos for every woman I found.
Sometimes they would set up a business like the ice cream shop and then look for really poor
people. When I meet them I start by telling them I can help them and their family. We convinced
the women to do this. They’re poor. And we’d tell them, “You need to think about your family,
your parents, your brothers and sisters. Think about your future and move ahead.” Some knew they
would be prostitutes. But many didn’t.

DOMINICAN WOMAN: [via a translator] I was tricked. They told me prostitution was illegal
and no harm would come to me.

DAVIDSON: With nearly 70% of the population in the Dominican Republic living in poverty
and 75% unable to finish secondary school, people are desperate. Yamila Azize Vargas, a Senior
Researcher at the University of Puerto Rico, did a study of women in Latin America and the
Caribbean for the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking in Woman. She says unlike a decade ago
most women today know what kind of work they’ll be doing when they leave their country.

YAMILA AZIZE VARGAS: Because this has been going on for more than a decade, that now they
do know, that they do know what, you know, kind of work they will be engaging in. What they don’t
know is the particular working conditions they will be facing. Our sense of the problem is that
they do know what kinds of work that, and that they are willing to go because they are in need to
go. And that they want to try it. Even if other woman for instance, tell, tell them “I went
through this difficult situations in life.” I mean, when I travel they will say, “I want to try
it anyway.”

DAVIDSON: What’s different in this last decade? Because trafficking, prostitution,
domestic work, arranged marriages, is actually age-old. It’s been going on a long time. But what
has happened in the last decade?

VARGAS: Well, I guess that the migration is still going on. There are, as I said,
significant changes in the way they are migrating, that third persons, meaning traffickers,
traditional traffickers or agents are not that frequent. Most of them are usually family networks
or national, friends networks, to make these arrangements to travel. And it’s important to stress
the fact that the patterns of trafficking has been changing from the ’80s to the ’90s. Because as
more immigrants settle in these countries then other kinds of networks are established. And
sometimes there are women from Latin American recruiting other women because they make money out
of that. So the third person, the foreigner, is not needed. It’s not needed anymore and they use
nationals to bring these people, all these women, to these countries. Which makes the situation
more complicated in a way because then the women in that sense feel more threatened by the whole
situation because it’s somebody from their place who’s doing this. Or through family members as
well that they will provide a space and they will go as a tourist for instance. What happens,
several countries will allow them to enter as a tourist, but then when the time is over they will
stay and then become illegal immigrants. And then, by that time they will be either connected to
the friends, either business or families where they could provide either sex work or domestic
work. Domestic work is very safe for them in a way because usually they are living in the house.
So, that protects them to be exposed to migration police or things like that.

DAVIDSON: As Vargas says, these women don’t always end up doing sex work.

VARGAS: The other strategy that they could use to migrate is through arranged marriages.
Or through becoming a step-daughter of this, a particular man. But they will eventually, that’s
the strategy to migrate. But what they, the kind of work they will do is either sex work or
domestic work. But in these situations they usually meet the man. Like if the man came as a
tourist, let’s say from Brasilia to the Dominican Republic. And then he promises the woman all
sorts of things, or “I’m in love with you,” and I mean, there are some situations that, you

DAVIDSON: That is legitimate.

VARGAS: …That’s legitimate. And that they will get married and be a couple. There are
some situations. But it’s less, it’s less cases that comes out that way. What happens, what has
been documented is that they go and sometimes the woman knows that this will not be a traditional
marriage. But that then she will be abused. And she will be…

DAVIDSON: But she doesn’t know that?


DAVIDSON: I mean, she isn’t expecting to be abused.

VARGAS: Oh, no. No, no, no. No, no, no. She will maybe have the idea that this is an
arranged marriage and that there will not necessarily be this love for, she will not expect to
work it as a regular marriage but of course she will not expect that there will be all sorts or
violence or abuse. Or be forced to work as a sex worker, or provide sex work or provide his
domestic work.

DAVIDSON: In addition to women migrating to escape poverty, Vargas says the increased
patterns of consumption in the world compound the problem.

VARGAS: There’s all kinds of situations. It’s not just desperate women that need
desperately the money. It’s also because they want to improve living conditions. Because our
standards of what is progress is becoming much more complicated. I mean, people want to consume,
people, you know, communications now are getting every place. And people are able to see all
kinds of different standards of living. So, people want to have more, and progress for people is
to consume and to have a car and to have this and that. So that has changed people’s views about
how they want to live.

DAVIDSON: And so they go with hope of maybe achieving this higher standard of living.

VARGAS: Definitely. And in terms of our region, it’s also very important to take into
account the colonial, our colonial history. Most of the countries in our region were colonies of
Spain. And now some of them are neo-colonies of the United States. So, we have been raised with
the idea that the white person and the white ways of living are what we should aspire to. That
should be our goal. So going to Europe is like a sign of progress. In spite of what you are going
to do there. And you can see that in this video about migration, women’s migration and from women
from the Dominican Republic to Switzerland and to Spain. And when you, when mothers are asked
about, “Do you know what your daughter is going to do in Switzerland?” for instance, she says,
“No, but I’m sure she will do fine because she is going to Europe.”

DAVIDSON: The international community is becoming more familiar with these modern forms of
migration and trafficking. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has begun including
information about the trafficking of women in its reports. And Vargas says the women themselves
are becoming more informed.

VARGAS: I must say that they are organizing themselves, on the positive side. There are
several organizations in Europe, in the Dominican Republic, and in Spain there is an organization
for Dominican Republic, women from the Dominican Republic, called “Amde.” There is organizations
in Switzerland called “FESE”?? for women from Latin America. There is “LAFO” in Austria. I think
there is one in Italy as well. And you know, it is through these small groups where we are
getting basically a lot of information on the specific situations of these women. There are
sometimes, also it’s important to underline the role of the consulates. I mean, they don’t pay
any attention to this. There are some exceptions. If a person in a consulate is interested in
this situation, they sometimes help women, go to the detention centers and check out on them. But
their regular policy is not to pay any kind of attention.

DAVIDSON: You mean if at a consulate, if they’re aware of a woman from their country who

VARGAS: Illegal immigrant for instance. They will not pay much attention. No, no. And
that’s an area that we are interested to work in. Because I think it’s the responsibility of a
consulate to pay attention to all its, all the people from the country that they are
representing. It’s not just some situations. It’s not just to issue a visa or a permit for
something. And there’s some exceptions. And makes a big difference for women. At least to get
good counseling and to feel somehow protected by the people who is supposed to protect them. But
the fact is there has been cases where trafficking operations are done in these consulates.

DAVIDSON: Just this month when President Clinton unveiled his International Crime Control
Act of 1998, he included the trafficking of people as one of the major post-Cold War threats in
the world. The President has asked Congress for $280 million to fund the first comprehensive
international crime control strategy. Next year the administration will hold an international
meeting to call attention to issue of the trafficking in women and girls, and to develop
strategies for combating this human rights violation. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security