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Sex worker law in reformists’ sights, but can govt deliver?

A nighttime view of an area near Rangoon's Pansodan Bridge where sex workers are known to solicit customers. (PHOTO: Hkun Lat /Myanmar Now)

Sex workers in Burma say they have fared no better under the National League for Democracy-led government, despite the party’s campaign pledge to tackle human rights abuses and fight the kind of corruption that is often endemic to the illicit trade.

Individuals and advocacy organisations have told DVB they fear a protracted wait before genuine reforms are made to the antiquated Suppression of Prostitution Act 1949, citing entrenched cultural prejudices and the special interests of law enforcement. DVB can confirm that discussions on changing the act are underway by a legislative commission chaired by former parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, which is tasked with reviewing laws for possible amendment.

Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues member Tin Maung Oo confirmed that “detailed” talks are underway regarding the sex work law, saying it is “one of 200 legislations our commission has to look at,” but he declined to provide further details on the progress of those discussions.

‘Nothing much has changed’

Despite the resounding November 2015 election victory for the NLD — a party that was widely expected to prioritise human rights — activists say in some parts of the country, police have stepped up their harassment of sex workers as well as members of the LGBTI community.

“The government may have changed at the top, but nothing much has changed in the way sex workers are treated by law enforcement,” said Aung Myo Min, founder of human rights advocacy group Equality Myanmar.

Most activists agree that Burma’s political and religious climate makes any push for decriminalisation too unrealistic to pursue in the short-term. Instead, they’re calling for increased protections and an end to the entrenched police corruption that has become synonymous with the nexus of law enforcement and the sex industry.

Sex workers commonly recount tales of entrapment, informants and police officers engaging women for services before arresting them. Since the trade itself is illegal, sex workers are also left unsupported in the aftermath of police or client brutality, with no legal recourse if the client turns violent, declines the use of protection or refuses payment.

“[Decriminalisation], yes, that is what I want, but I think it is too far [a progression, in Burma’s case]. That is what our ultimate, best case scenario would be,” said Aung Myo Min.

Multiple attempts were made to contact members of the Myanmar Police Force for comment on the amendment discussions and allegations of ongoing rights abuses and corruption. Senior members of the police forces in Rangoon, Mandalay and Kachin State declined to speak on the record.

One individual, who described himself as a veteran police-major in Rangoon, agreed to speak anonymously, telling DVB that the majority of his colleagues hold themselves to a high standard and support reform.

“I sympathise as with my [own] children; I don’t want them to work like this. But, even though we want to help them financially, we are not rich. So, we have to arrest them according to the law issued by the State,” he said, adding that to release sex workers after they are apprehended risks the arresting officers’ own job security.

Previous attempts at reform in 2015, under the former Thein Sein administration, fizzled on the floor of Parliament after a string of political disruptions, including the ouster of then-Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chairman Shwe Mann, which resulted in the bill falling off the agenda before the general election campaign kicked into full swing.

But far from being disappointed, many sex workers were relieved to see the draft amendment bill abandoned. Suggested changes included raising the maximum term of imprisonment, increasing fines for sex workers who decline to undergo medical checks, and criminalising the solicitation of sex work – allowing the clients to be hauled before the courts as well as those offering services.

The current legal framework, last amended by the junta-era State Peace and Development Council regime in 1998, legislates a minimum prison term of one year but not more than five. Sex workers, speaking anonymously to DVB, reported that the most common sentence was three years in prison, with maximum fines of a mere 1,000 kyats ($0.75) rarely dished out to offenders.

Cultural change is key

The women’s empowerment NGO Pyi Gyi Khin told DVB that they had no meetings with government officials in 2016, an absence of dialogue on the issue of reforming the Suppression of Prostitution Act that their representative attributed to the new NLD lawmakers still finding their feet in the transition from activism to policy-making. The organisation said they have had official contact with parliamentarians this year, over the course of which their suggested changes to the legislation were submitted. But advocates from the organisation Sex Workers in Myanmar (SWIM) said they’ve been told the Myanmar Police Force, through the Ministry of Home Affairs, is making its preferences known.

“We have information that the police are resistant to changes. We told them [MPs] about the abuses, but then we realised the police have their own interests; the benefits they get from corruption,” said Thuzar Win, the chairperson of SWIM. “This is good for the police; they can ask for bribery. When they deal with the prostitution business, they are like kings. They can do anything — if they want free sex or to exploit them, they can. They don’t want to lose that power.”

DVB’s source in the Rangoon Division police force, however, denies that such behaviour is endemic — but acknowledged some officers took advantage of their authority.

“According to my experience, when we arrest someone we feel unhappy. Police also feel like this. Now, many police know about human rights.”

Responding to SWIM’s claims that the MPF are exerting influence in the amendment discussions, the major said he doubted the police were present at all, but if they were, it was likely to be former military personnel transferred into the force.

“I want real police to be involved [in the amendment discussions]. It would be best … However, I don’t think this kind of person would be there,” he said.

Few in Burma believe now is the time to aim for decriminalisation, but the regional coalition Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) points to New Zealand as a model to emulate: The Pacific island nation decriminalised all sex work in 2003. Although optimistic, Kay Thi Win of APNSW acknowledges that was a hard-won battle spanning decades.

“Myself and the sex worker community, we want decriminalisation,” she said. “If you look at New Zealand, it took two decades of advocacy work. But our country is quite traditional, both politically and culturally. People’s mindsets have to change [first].”

She adds, “The culture and traditions [now] have not prevented HIV and violence against sex workers.”

NLD parliamentarian Sandar Min has long pushed for reform on the Suppression of Prostitution Act. Rather than sending sex workers to prison, the outspoken Lower House representative for Seikkyikanaungto Township, Rangoon Division, wants to see these women enrolled in vocational training programmes, calling the current strategy of imprisonment “unsuccessful for our country.”

“One year … up to three years [in prison]. It is a waste of time for these girls. It is not teaching them a lesson. That’s why I want to see the punishment change to sending them to training centres,” she said.

Referring to previous failed reform attempts, Sandar Min told DVB that she believes the NLD-led government understands the economic struggles of the country’s women, saying sex workers are usually from “poor areas, from poor families. Now the government, our government, understands that.”

Stigma still costing lives

UN Women backs the push for decriminalisation of prostitution globally, saying in a 2013 statement that a shift away from legal prosecution would “ensure the access of sex workers to all services, including HIV care and treatment. UN Women also supports the regulation of sex work in order to protect sex workers from abuse and violence.”

According to a 2013 UNAIDS report, “HIV in Asia and the Pacific,” female sex workers in the Asia-Pacific region are 29 percent more likely to contract HIV than female non-sex workers. Despite national rates in Burma declining, some specific high-prevalence areas, such as Pathein in Irrawaddy Division, continue to see climbing figures. In Burma, UNAIDS reported some 7,100 new HIV infections in 2012, however that figure was down significantly from 25,000 in 2001.

In 2014, researchers at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, presented a paper indicating that decriminalisation could also lead to a decrease in HIV infections. The study, introduced by lead author Kate Shannon, identified decriminalisation as the most impactful factor for curtailing the spread of the autoimmune disease, which disproportionately affects female sex workers, intravenous drug users and men who have sex with other men (MSM).

As leading lawmakers mull amending the Suppression of Prostitution Act 1949, sex workers and members of the LGBTI community are cautiously hopeful that legislative protections will bring substantial improvements to health and legal support, not to mention a reprieve from police harassment.

Ar Khi, a transgender woman and sex worker in Myitkyina, Kachin State, earlier this year told the DVB Investigates team that law enforcement authorities are simply another bully they face in the wider community.

“The police slogan should be ‘Let me disturb you,’ instead of ‘May I help you?’” she said.

Ar Khi, sex workers and rights activists are hopeful policymakers in Naypyidaw will reform the nearly 70-year-old law– one that has unsuccessfully attempted to rein in one of the world’s oldest trades.

For them, the time for change is long overdue.