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

A room in a massage parlour in Pegu (PHOTO: Jessica Mudditt)

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.

According to Eamonn Murphy, the Myanmar country coordinator for UNAIDS, it’s “well understood that additional services may be provided” at these venues, although 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.

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 Murphy says 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 the Population Services International (PSI) Targeted Outreach Programme. PSI provides sexual health services in all but three of Burma’s 333 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,” she said.

While government data from 2012 estimates there are 60,000 sex workers in Burma, PSI says the actual figure is closer to 80,000 – and that there are 15,000 sex workers in Rangoon alone. However Lancelot said 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 towns such as Muse. Overall it’s very scattered and the sex worker population is highly mobile,” she added.

“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,” said UNAIDS country coordinator Murphy. “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.”

“Those in the grey area of the sex work industry are completely 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 UK-based support group Marie Stopes International.

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. Ma Su is paid 700 kyat (US$0.70) 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, but she cannot take a day off unless she is sick.

Ma Su told DVB that Marie Stopes International was the only NGO she encountered while working at the massage parlour during the past year. Outreach workers had taken blood tests from 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,” he said. “Some 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 10,000 kyat for 15 minutes as opposed to 4,000 kyat for an hour. He said that foreign customers are also charged extra “if they don’t come out of the room in time”.

“The women get paid the same no matter what,” he said, adding that some of the women working there are as young as 16.

Lancelot explained that a common scenario at KTV lounges is for an owner to pay a woman 30,000 kyat 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.

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.

Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist based in Rangoon [Yangon]. To read more from her, click here.