Imperial Thailand’s North: Thai colonialism’s cultural division of labour and the child sex trade

Avoiding colonization by Europe simply meant that we colonized our own people. This internal colonialism, in which officials appointed from the metropolis rule and drain the countryside like conquered provinces, has led to obvious differences among the Thai.

(Gen. Saiyut Koetphon, former head of Internal Security Operations Command, 1976.)

The appalling case of child sex trafficking in Mae Hong Son, with its allegations of the extensive involvement of central government police and bureaucracy, has highlighted the tip of the iceberg that is Imperial Thailand. The United Nations estimates that modern slavery is among the fastest growing criminal activities across the globe, generating annual profits of US $150 billion. Modern slavery is a highly profitable crime which inflicts hardship and misery on around 21-45 million people from the most vulnerable communities, especially ethnic minorities. Further, after over two decades of counter-trafficking initiatives, the global community is losing the war on modern slavery. Imperial attitudes condoning forms of colonialism contribute to these crimes.

The business of modern slavery is extraordinarily profitable, with very low associated risk of offenders facing prosecution, conviction and lengthy jail time. The International Labour Organisation estimates that sex trafficking generates US $99 billion in annual profits, and Thailand’s sex trade revenue has been estimated at US $6.4 billion. Yet the number of offenders arrested, prosecuted and convicted is woefully small. Furthermore, prosecutions are disproportionately targeted at low level criminals. Senior members of these syndicates remain in the shadows and operate with impunity. Given Thailand’s well-known culture of impunity, it is not surprising that modern slavery is constantly threatening to overwhelm the country.

The Mae Hong Son case is disturbing because it illustrates, in the worst possible way, the results of Thailand’s internal colonialism of its peripheral ethnic minority community: the ‘cultural division of labour’. The cultural division of labour was popularised as a concept by Michael Hechter, Foundation Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, in the 1980s. He applied the term in the instance of the UK’s Celtic fringe (Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) and their relationship with England, its internal colonies being both the first of its colonies and the last vestiges of the British Empire. In the end, driven by the moral necessity to promote self-determination, the UK has partially divested itself of these colonies via various forms of autonomy, namely assemblies and parliaments.

Broadly, the cultural division of labour is the use of ethnic communities for specific purposes, as internal colonies of often imperial states, serving the metropole, or capital city, with a specific form of labour. Thus, in Thailand, one prominent example has been the use of Thai Lao people from the Northeast as construction workers, maids, gardeners, and taxi drivers in Bangkok. However, many of the lowest paid of these jobs, as well as low-end jobs in the fisheries industry, are now filled by Myanmar workers, an example of neo-colonialism.

As regards the cultural division of labour and the child sex industry, the Nazis promoted the kidnapping of young Polish girls as young as 15 as well as Russian girls, such as in the city of Smolensk, to fill the German military brothels in World War II. The use of Korean, Chinese, and Philippine women as sex slaves by the invading Japanese forces is also notable.

In the modern era, the cultural division of labour in child sex trafficking can be found in a variety of different locations across Asia.  The most prominent example is Cambodia, which continues to have a notorious reputation of being a heaven for paedophiles.  For many years, Svay Pak, a Vietnamese village outside Phnom Penh, was well-known as the epicentre of Cambodia’s child sex trade, with Vietnamese women being seen as more uninhibited and willing, possibly a holdover from the issue of Vietnamese prostitutes during the Vietnam War. The village is still a nexus for the trade, though it has been driven more underground.  Here, Vietnamese and Cambodian girls between the ages of 5-16 are offered to paedophiles for a night or up to a month. While local men are the most prevalent customers for child prostitution, men from other Asian countries, the United States, Australia, South Africa, and Europe also travel to Cambodia to engage in this form of child sex tourism. As a side business, some parents sell their daughters’ virginity.

Within Thailand, the Mae Hong Son case confirms the cultural division of labour in the child sex industry, Mae Hong Son being a traditional Karen area. The case now involves 29 instances of modern slavery, seven of buying sex services, and one gang rape of a minor. As reported by the Bangkok Post, local girls in Northern Thailand are regularly offered to VIP officials from Bangkok, with the 11 brothels or soom in Mae Hong Son apparently owned by someone who is “believed to be a police officer”. In fact, this practice appears to be nationwide, occurring in some form in every province, though more in tourist provinces. As the Bangkok Post team notes, this is called the ‘welcoming tradition’ or ‘serving dessert to the bosses tradition’. Sanphasit Koompraphat, former committee member for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, alleges the practice is widespread and even extends to female state schoolteachers in rural areas, who are offered up in exchange for budgetary support.

According to the Bangkok Post, the Thai view that uplands minorities are available for sex dates back to the 1950s, following the publication of the Thai-language book titled 30 Nations in Chiang Rai (Samsib chart nai Chiang Rai) by Boonchuay Srisawaddi, which mistakenly characterised a senior Akha woman initiating young men into sex. This was the birth of uplands minorities as an erotic ‘other’, with ethnic minority women being seen as paler and more beautiful, and the old agricultural practice of tok kaew, or exchanging goods for cash, now extending to young girls and the socio-economic divide. The refugee camps are also a source of children forced into prostitution.

Other than poverty and the refugee crisis, the root of the problem is that girls are traditionally valued less than boys, being seen a further down the karmic ladder of existence. Thus, for some economically depressed ethnic minorities such as the Lisu, virginity is seen as less important than earning money to provide for parents and show gratitude. The insecurity of the ethnic minorities in the process of obtaining citizenship and lack of democratic oversight in Mae Hong Son only compound the problem, as the ethnic minorities seek to ally themselves to local appointed bureaucrats through any means possible.

However, this instance of internal colonialism is relatively new. It was only in the 1960s that officials started leaving Bangkok to inspect the North in any number. In 1968, the Tourism Authority of Thailand opened its first office outside Bangkok, in Chiang Mai. Trekking tourism began in the 1980s, then in 1987, the ‘Visit Thailand Year’ marked the opening up of many uplands villages via roads. Mass tourism in the area then took off in the mid 2000s. One estimate of the domestic Thai tourist market is 24,710,284 tourists in 2014, of which the North attracted the highest number, 4,657,789, most of whom were from the Central, Eastern, and Southern regions. Thus, officials arriving in the North (or any parts of Thailand) expecting sex from young women and minors appears to be a relatively recent development in Thailand’s imperial era.

The relationship between Bangkok and the North has been one of internal colonialism from the 1950s due to relative underdevelopment and the political subordination of its communities, to the extent that Lanna identity was deliberately targeted for eradication, via the suppression of local culture and the burning of manuscripts. As such, central control over development in the North has long been seen as a means of social control. As in the Northeast, ethnoregionalism has emerged in the case of the Khon Mueang, the majority lowland ethnicity of the North, who differ culturally from the Central Thai, such as in their ethnicity; language; matrilinearity; and diet. Historically, the royal house of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai was viewed as ethnically different and ‘foreign’ as the Siamese cemented their rule over the North. As the unofficial capital of the North, Chiang Mai is, in fact, much older than Bangkok, as was stressed at its 700th anniversary, thus was a contender for the capital of a Tai state.

However, ethnic responses to internal colonialism in the North are most associated with uplands minorities, especially the Hmong and Karen. The Thai state portray uplands minority people as being fundamentally culturally different, as compared to the Tai-Kadai Khon Mueang of Chiang Mai and other lowlands areas. While the latter is seen as an inferior form of Thais, the language, status, and culture of the uplands minorities are all seen as fundamentally primitive and are regularly portrayed as such in Thai miniseries. There are therefore both class and ethnic feelings of ‘we-they’ discrimination by Central Thais, as well as a greater awareness of the common problems and culture of uplands minority peoples.

Especially in recent years, the political articulation of ethnic consciousness in the North, such as in shadow reports to UN treaties by the Network of Indigenous Peoples of Thailand and IMPECT, is a response to the ways in which the state has promoted the economic, cultural, and political subordination of the Northern ethnic communities. In the Thaksin years, northern ethnoregionalism strengthened overall, mainly due to an increasing perception of under-investment by Bangkok in infrastructure in the region, such as a tram system for Chiang Mai.

The case of ethnic minority children in Mae Hong Son being forced into prostitution gives a boost to ethnoregionalism but is not restricted to the North. It is being replicated at this moment all over Thailand, with Thai ethnic minorities or foreign trafficked children, mainly Myanmar and Lao victims. For instance, in the case of the 2016 police raid on the Nataree Massage Parlor, 15 children in forced prostitution were discovered, only one of whom was Thai, the others mainly being from Myanmar – evidence of a neo-colonial model of child sex trafficking. In total, of 121 prostitutes found at the massage parlour, nearly one hundred were foreign. Unfortunately, the adult trafficked victims were charged with illegal immigration offences. Copious evidence was found incriminating local police as well as immigration police, confirming the evidence from Mae Hong Son, where nine police officers have been sacked or transferred, of high-level and extensive police involvement.

In Thailand, trafficked children are definitely seen as victims. Thai adult sex workers are generally overlooked, while adult foreign Lao or Myanmar trafficked sex work victims risk being seen as illegal immigrants and arrested. However, the difference between a child forced into prostitution and an adult sex worker is literally one day, and many adult victims were trafficked as children. This suggests a need for more victim-oriented domestic legislation and closer cooperation with international and local NGOs and the community. For instance, representatives from a children's home and the Children and Youth Council of Thailand have called for the government to find ways to end the ‘welcoming tradition’ by setting up a special unit responsible for regularly inspecting entertainment venues as well as rented houses and dormitories used for providing sex services.

Moreover, the Civic Council of Mae Hong Son has submitted a resolution on tackling modern slavery and prostitution. The Council wants the Prime Minister to request the province be transformed into a pilot area for a crackdown on human trafficking, corruption, illegal lotteries, and illicit drugs. The Council also proposed a three-phase solution. The first, immediate phase should include protection and help for victims, transparent and honest investigations, and guaranteed punishment for those involved. The second, mid-term phase should include a follow-up audit process, a campaign against human trafficking, the promotion of whistle-blowing on illegal activities, and frequent checks by authorities on establishments with a history of involvement in human trafficking. In the third phase, the longer term, the Council has called for a campaign to promote proper values together with central government support for the province's attempts to curb poverty and promote socio-economic development.

These common-sense solutions risk being ignored by the mentality of internal colonialism. Thailand’s imperial phase is far from over, with every instance of children forced into prostitution, enforced disappearance, and torture only emphasizing how Imperial Thailand treats its ethnic minorities. Government-backed campaigns and crackdowns simply treat the symptoms of the underlying malady and are merely temporary Band-Aids. Thailand desperately needs to go through a decolonisation process, one which is backed by legislation addressing economic, social, and cultural disparities, specifically a National Language Policy to recognise Thailand’s 62+ ethnic communities; legislation on racial discrimination; legislation on enforced disappearances and torture; legislation to expand and empower the National Human Rights Commission, and legislation on decentralization involving accountable democracy, elected governors and regional assemblies. This will save our children.

Nothing else will do.

That is why we need a Foundation for a Social Democracy.

“Supporting the Project for a Social Democracy: prosocdem@gmail.com”