Southeast Asia

 
 

Should we boycott Myanmar?

Mish Khan

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

 

In tourism brochure clichés, Myanmar is often referred to as the last jewel of Asia. After fifty years of isolation under military rule, the newly open Southeast Asian nation conjures quaint images of the last untouched frontier in a shrinking world. Although we must remind ourselves that such romanticisation can be misplaced, given the authoritarian regime was a harsh reality rather than a luxurious abstinence from modernisation, many foreigners are curiously enthusiastic about visiting the country.

As an undergraduate focusing on Myanmar studies and the Burmese language, across my degree I have had numerous friends approach me to discuss plans to visit the country, famous for its glittering pagodas, ancient temples and rich cultural diversity.

When people learn I study Myanmar, they often gush to me about their own experiences in the country. From backpackers I have chatted with in cheap hostels in Cambodia, to wealthy club-goers smoking cigarettes in Singapore, almost everyone had a positive story to share.

However, recently the tone surrounding this conversation has changed. When hairdressers, university peers, strangers at parties or uber drivers ask me what I study, their first question is now about the Rohingya crisis, or negative feelings stemming from media coverage of the situation.

A lot of this discussion has focused on whether it is ethical to visit Myanmar, given recent widespread attention to the mass exodus of the Rohingya from Rakhine state. People do not want to be seen as financially or ethically condoning this traumatic situation—who wants to look back across history and say they supported what has already been called a genocide?

Therefore, it is worth speculating on two things: how this most recent wave of international outrage could dent Myanmar’s tourism figures, and whether foreigners should boycott the country, for fear of lining an authoritarian pocket.

Tourism growth is important for Myanmar’s government. For some background, it is difficult to accurately gauge tourism statistics in Myanmar. In 2014, Myanmar claimed to receive 3 million international tourists. However, at least two-thirds of this figure were day-trippers from Thailand, China, India, Laos and Bangladesh. The number peaked in 2015 at 4.68 million. Unsurprisingly the following year, total tourist figures dropped dramatically to 2.9 million when conflict in north and north-eastern Myanmar rendered day-tripping more difficult.

A different measurement of tourism in Myanmar has been airport arrivals—this figure rose from 593,000 in 2012 to 1.08 million in 2016. Yet only 48.2 percent of those arriving in Yangon International airport in 2014 did so on a tourist visa, and it is estimated only 50-60 percent of arrivals in 2016 were purely for leisure. Measuring the sale of tickets at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most famous tourist attraction, revealed 505,351 tickets were sold in 2014—far from the three million tourists statistic—and in 2016, 600,000 tickets were sold, a contrast to the 2.9 million total tourist figures.

The Myanmar Ministry of Tourism plans to accommodate 3.5 million tourists by the end of 2017, and claims to have hosted 2.27 million tourists from January to August 2017. Given the difficult in knowing if tourism is even really booming to begin with, in evaluating the impact of the Rohingya crisis on Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry by the end of 2017, we should be cautious to not make sweeping claims about how exactly figures did or did not drop, and instead carefully examine airport arrivals, ticket sales to sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, and day-trip percentages to gauge the real impact the crisis will have on Myanmar’s 2017 tourism figures. Currently, some coverage suggests the crisis has taken a toll on hotel bookings, particularly visits to Rakhine-based attractions such as Ngapali beach and Mrauk-U, but only time will reveal the true impact.

So, is it ethical to visit Myanmar? Most people asking me this question are concerned for two key reasons—they do not want to financially assist the regime’s conduct towards the Rohingya, and they do not want to be seen as morally endorsing the Rohingya crisis, or at best, being complacent to it.

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With regard to lining the wrong pockets, opponents of a tourism boycott argue that tourism infrastructure was mainly government-owned in the past and such a case could be made, however today hotels, restaurants, guides, drivers, hawkers and vendors are privately owned and employ ordinary people. Accordingly, a tourism boycott would have little impact on the government while adversely impacting many who have built a livelihood around tourism.

Others may argue that the government still owns substantive cogs in the tourism machine, such as airlines, or that it will benefit from tax revenue raised via tourism. Regardless of what you think, there is lots of literature suggesting economic sanctions in Myanmar never really had an impact in its democratic transition, so it is tough to conclude that a tourism boycott for economic purposes would now suddenly change the government’s attitude.

But what about more generally visiting Myanmar—is chowing down on Shan noodles and taking a selfie outside Shwedagon Pagoda normalising the Rohingya exodus? I think there are numerous factors why this is not necessarily the case.

Reverting back to avoiding the Myanmar people is one of the worst things we can do. Transitioning from a politically oppressive society with little access to information—to most of the country having Facebook within a few years—means the spread of misinformation and mistrust is particularly potent in Myanmar. Even within Myanmar, understanding of the Rakhine situation has been poor due to a history of travel limitations. In a global era of “fake news”, one of the most worthwhile tools we have is human relationships. To the common person in Myanmar, exposure to other norms will not come from catchy think-pieces, it will come from human interaction.

We should also keep visiting Myanmar because even beyond the Rohingya crisis, democracy and rule of law in the country is very fragile. A recent speaker I witnessed described the environment in the country as a collective PTSD. As a young person who has been to Myanmar many times, including with several Australian friends, I think cross-cultural interactions have been very valuable in prompting all of us to be more open to reframing our thoughts, especially if thinking is embedded in historical trauma.

And most of all, I have had people from Myanmar take me more seriously when they know I have bothered to get to know their country. Passionate strangers on Facebook or Twitter with contrarian political beliefs to mine considerably open up when I can blurt out some basic Burmese, reference my time in the country, and express an opinion as someone with a deep fondness for Myanmar, as opposed to looking to win a moral battle for ego points.

Therefore, I hope to keep encouraging those around me to spend time in the country and with its people, now more so than ever.

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To choose or not to choose: That is the question for Myanmar

Liam Brewin Higgins

Politics | Southeast Asia

 

The low sonorous murmurs of Buddhist prayer rising above the sea of twinkling golden stupas becomes distant and distorted, as the startling bright lights of gleaming shopping centres engulfs the crammed streets of downtown Yangon.

Myanmar, like many countries, is a place of contrasts, challenges and complexity.  As an undergraduate student taking part in the ‘Political Economy of Myanmar Course’ this year and a first-time traveller to Myanmar, I became increasingly aware of the great importance of the multi-dimensional relationship between Myanmar and China. From lively karaoke in Naypyidaw, to the green mountain tops of the Shan mountains and to the smallest villages in between, the cultural and geographical diversity of this country should not be underestimated.

Despite intensifying Chinese economic and strategic interests and considerable support from the USA for Myanmar’s ongoing political transition, Myanmar has engaged on a higher pragmatic bilateral level with China. Myanmar as an emerging Asia Pacific state cannot afford direct and confrontational great power competition manifesting into a potentially dangerous Sino-USA rivalry in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has thus sought to navigate the complexities of the increasing Sino-USA competition in the Asia Pacific Region, by continuing her father’s overarching post-Second World War emphasis on an independent, pragmatic and non-aligned foreign policy for Myanmar.

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Since the victory of the National League of Democracy in the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi as foreign minister and state counsellor has pragmatically intensified Myanmar’s paukphaw ‘cousin’ relationship with China amid growing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to the NLD’s landslide victory, relations between the Thein Sein government and Beijing cooled because of the stalling of the billion dollar Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, in what Jürgen Haacke has described as the military’s fear of ‘...undue military, political or economic dependence on China.’ Indeed, Myanmar’s experience of exploitative British colonialism has a created a strong and ‘pervasive’ nationalistic sentiment that sustains much of the Tatmadaw’s hypersensitivity to foreign interests in Myanmar.

Geographically, China is a key and influential actor in Myanmar’s border regions and peace process.  In a recent New York Times article Jane Perlez highlighted China’s continued indirect support of ethnic armed organisations such as the United Wa Army, despite China’s extensive investment in infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The United Wa Army is believed to have the military capabilities to rival or at least challenge the Tatmadaw, with an estimated 20,000 active soldiers, as well as an arsenal of helicopters and tank destroyers allegedly supplied by China. The Wa region is virtually a self-administered area that has more cultural ties with China, rather than with Myanmar. Its close proximity to the border and an association with the illegal narcotics trade in China has even resulted in the circulation of Chinese currency instead of the Burmese Kyat.

President Xi Jinping’s extensive Belt and Road initiative, including the Kyaukphyu oil, and gas pipelines originating in Rakhine State are geostrategic and economic projects that Beijing has focused on in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu pipeline is considered as economically and strategically significant because it allows Beijing to transport large amounts of oil and natural gas overland from Rakhine State and transport it into Yunnan Province, where it is processed and sent to power the industrial centres further east. The pipelines are currently in operation, allowing China to source energy from the Bay of Bengal without it having to pass through the highly-contested and geostrategically significant Malacca Straits, currently controlled by Singapore. China has also begun constructing a number of deep-sea ports in Myanmar, as part of the ‘string of pearls strategy’, that has also seen China building ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.  The People’s Liberation Army Navy is attempting to exercise influence on the waters to China’s East and also in the Indian ocean, making China what Steinberg refers to as a ‘two ocean country.’  China’s economic interests in Myanmar have been focused primarily in terms of developmental investment and these have rarely come into conflict with the interests of the USA.

Under the de facto leadership of the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar will continue to attempt to pursue a foreign policy that isn’t solely reliant on a foreign actor. It is very probable however, that Myanmar’s desire for democratic reform, greater state unity and foreign investment in a wider regional context of great power competition is going to be increasingly difficult to pursue. Especially given the present situation in Rakhine state which has seen, according to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, over 300,000 Rohingya refugees escaping violence and fleeing to Bangladesh since the 25th of August 2017.

Particular moments in Myanmar stand out to me as being intensely provocative. Standing at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda the low hum of afternoon prayers still resonating, I realised the great extent to which the challenges facing Myanmar are inter-connected and intricate. Soaring above thunderous monsoon clouds over the Bay of Bengal, I reflected how wonderful it was to live and breathe research and understand how even the simplest human narratives can create a burning desire to explore and to investigate.

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Indonesia: From paradox to partnership

Peter Bright

Politics | Asia

 

Whilst Australia and Indonesia have shared strategic challenges in the past, we are now seeing a convergence of interests that should see cooperation, rather than rivalry, defining bilateral relations.

Of course a convergence of strategic interests is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for cooperation. Australia and Indonesia will need strong leadership, long-term policy making, and a concerted shift in strategic thinking.

As it stands today, Indonesia represents a paradox in our defence planning. It is potentially one of our greatest strategic assets or greatest future threats. Indonesia forms the first line of defence between Australia and any intrusive hostile power. However, Indonesia will also be the major power with its military assets closest to Australia.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Indonesia will be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. It is highly likely that this economic strength will gradually translate into comparable military strength.  We must move quickly to ensure that a rapidly strengthening Indonesia will be a solution rather than a problem for Australia. Unfortunately, we have not yet recognised the important role Indonesia will play in our strategic future.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and our defence planners continue to see Australia’s defence as relying primarily on American power in Asia. Admittedly, receding US primacy is not a certainty, but with the rise of China, a far more contested Asia is. This will have significant implications for both Australian and Indonesian defence planning. We must both consider new answers to the same old question: How do we best prevent the intrusion of a potentially hostile power into maritime South East Asia?

It is in the answer to this question that Indonesia and Australia find the most common ground. In a contested Asia, both countries will need to look closely at the sorts of strategic alignments that will best serve to prevent a hostile power intruding into maritime South East Asia.

For Indonesia, ASEAN is no longer the answer, due to a geographically driven divergence of common interests in the face of a rising China. For Australia, we need to seek security partners aside from the US. It should be acknowledged that Indonesia, simply as a consequence of geography, is our most logical security partner. It certainly presents greater advantages than the other oft-proposed options of Japan or India.

Indeed, the time could be right for a deeper partnership, whether it is formal or informal. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) appear to be cultivating a close personal relationship. That being said, during Jokowi’s February 2017 visit to Australia, bilateral defence cooperation was a far second to trade and investment on the list of priorities.

It was only in an interview given before the Australia trip that Jokowi drew attention to shared security issues. Jokowi suggested joint patrols in the South China Sea, only to backtrack as a result of domestic disapproval and outright rejection by Bishop and Turnbull. But perhaps this slip of the tongue does open up the question of what deeper cooperation could look like, and what it might achieve.

Australia would benefit significantly from a more capable Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), Indonesia’s equivalent of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). A more balanced TNI force structure, in favour of naval and air capabilities, would more effectively protect Indonesia’s air and maritime approaches. This would consequently better protect Australia’s approaches.

Jokowi has clearly prioritised Indonesia’s transformation into a maritime power with his announcement of a ‘global maritime axis.’ Though admittedly a vague set of policies, Jokowi’s maritime vision signals clear intentions, and Australia has an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to this transformation.

To make the most of this opportunity Australia needs to go beyond the simple staff exchanges, military aid and joint military exercises that have made up our partnership in previous years. We must transition into a relationship of equals and pursue deeper cooperation that might include the much tougher areas of defence procurement, capability planning, joint maritime surveillance, and increased force interoperability.

Australia is currently uniquely placed with its air and naval ‘capability edge’ to help shape a TNI rebalance. However, this window of opportunity is closing fast. Over the next 15-20 years, the contribution Australia could make to a partnership would be comparatively small based on current defence procurement and force structure. Certainly, 12 undelivered submarines will not make a meaningful contribution to any future partnership in the event of regional conflict.

Unfortunately, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper does little more than acknowledge Indonesia’s long-term importance to Australia. It fails to outline the sort of ambitious steps that would be required to see the full potential of this relationship realised. And that is exactly what we need on both sides, ambitious steps.

For too long we have focused our attention on the little issues and pitfalls that loom so large in our bilateral ties. There has been seemingly endless tit-for-tat diplomacy involving the recalling of ambassadors and unilateral suspension of everything from live exports to military cooperation. This prevents us from looking at the bigger picture and making meaningful progress.

To progress we need to stop taking an increasingly powerful Indonesia for granted. Instead, we must start laying the groundwork of a relationship that could support a meaningful and effective future security partnership.

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Apocalypse not-right-now: The unsurprising disorder in Mindanao

Miguel Galsim

Politics | Asia

 

On May 23, militants from the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) and Maute Groups stormed the city of Marawi in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The conflagration was sparked by a raid conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines which intended to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ASG. Maute reinforcements were called into the city shortly afterwards, eventuating in the current crisis.

Having declared allegiance to the Islamic State, the actions of the Maute Group and ASG have drawn Western media attention in a somewhat apocalyptic light, linking the fighting to the international effort against IS. The ABC’s report began: “militants linked to the Islamic State group torched buildings, seized more than a dozen Catholic hostages and raised the black flag of IS.” Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald’s lead stated simply that IS-linked militants “threatened to kill a priest and other Christian hostages.” A Reuters headline put it plainly as a “rebel rampage claimed by Islamic State.”

While the assault has undoubtable implications for human life and minority groups in the south, permitting an outsized appreciation of the Maute Group and ASG capabilities would be unhelpful for policy thinking. The recent upsurge in Marawi does not necessarily herald the spawn of a Philippine Raqqa, a caliphate wherein terrorists can freely roam and assail the rest of the archipelago.

The Maute Group and ASG operate in a distinct manner, and are empowered and constrained by unique contextual factors in the Philippine south. Firstly, the two terrorist organisations must be characterised by their relatively small size and limited controlled territory that forces them to operate surreptitiously in rural areas. ASG has been persistently hunted by the Duterte Government, and although a recent Congressional report places the Maute’s strength at 263 armed members, it remains outsized by rival Islamic, ethno-nationalist, and Communist armies on the island.

Moreover, both groups face resource limitations – this challenge drives ASG’s long-running fixation on kidnap-for-ransom operations, and similar extortionist behaviour from the Maute Group. While the aforementioned report also implied that the Maute Group was receiving funding from IS – a legitimate cause for concern – how well this will translate into battlefield advantages, especially in the face of a heavy-handed government counter-offensive, remains to be seen.

Most importantly, such unrest is not new to Mindanao. Armed groups have long exploited the central authorities’ inability to effectively govern and extend coercive influence over far-flung regions in the south. Opportunities are also opened by crushing poverty and pro-autonomy sentiment from a Bangsamoro Muslim population seeing itself as ethnically and culturally distinct, enmeshed in a history of maltreatment by Manila.

The Maguindanao Massacre of 2009, wherein 58 civilians were killed by a private militia as part of an electoral feud, illustrates this. In a similar vein, the Moro National Liberation Front occupied Zamboanga City for nearly three weeks in 2013, attempting to establish a breakaway republic. The current siege of Marawi is more an extension of a trend than an exceptional outburst of IS in Asia.

However, implicit in these opportunities are considerable threats to the Maute Group and ASG. These two organisations were not the only armed groups to rise out of deficient central governance. Much to their disdain, a number of Mindanao’s non-state forces – namely the MNLF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the New People’s Army – contrast with the IS-linked militants ideologically and are engaged in talks with the government at present. The  MILF even assisted Government forces in disrupting Maute and the ASG as part of their ceasefire negotiations.

More so, both the MNLF and MILF have a deeper history in carrying the banner of Muslim and Moro autonomy, and are generally more popular as a result, as outlined by Filipino scholar Eric Gutierrez. Adding insult to injury, both Fronts also denounced the terrorists’ assault on Marawi. The Maute Group and ASG would struggle to capitalise on wider Muslim discontent in Mindanao while surrounded by more experienced and entrenched competitors, regardless of the funds it allegedly receives from IS.

IS influence in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is a real threat, but it should not be overly inflated. Nor should it be forgotten that the Maute Group and ASG differ from the core IS organisation in the Middle East. Mindanao’s home-grown jihadist groups have a unique modus operandi, and exist under circumstances that stem from entrenched local issues, particularly the difficulties facing the Philippine state in bringing order and equitable development to the distant south.

In recognising these distinctions, more realistic and targeted policy options – especially from the Philippines’ Western allies – can be rendered that pinpoint specific vulnerabilities in the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Groups. More broadly, there is greater wisdom in restraining current and future policymakers from defining regional threats in broad strokes when localised, surgical approaches would prove more fitting.

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How to end ‘Tawuran’ in Indonesia

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat
Dikanaya Tarahita

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

 

Tawuran, the phenomenon of street fighting between high school gangs in Indonesian has placed student’s lives danger. Dikanaya Tarahita and Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat report on why the Tawuran is now large among Indonesian students, and what must be done to end the dangerous school tradition.

The number of cases of street fighting in Indonesia has increased in recent years. For instance, in Yogyakarta, a city that has the largest number of students in the country, there has been a rise in student violence, with 43 cases reported in 2016 . A more recent example is a bloody brawl that occurred among some students in Ciputat earlier in April 2017. Based on police reports, students threw stones at each other. In its aftermath, police confiscated these from involved students, along with Celurit, machetes, and swords in order to prevent another outbreak.​

A fight that has been broadly reported on involved students from SMK Adi Luhur and SMK Bunda Kandung. One student fighter died in the incident, while the other sustained major injuries. The fight was recorded and uploaded with a witness’ mobile and shared widely on social media platforms.

The increase in Tawuran fights is a serious cause for concern. High school students bring their collection of weapons to school, including knives, machetes and sickles in order to be prepared for when a brawl occurs.

This anarchic behaviour has a negative impact not only on victims and perpetrators of the violence, but on the wider community. Tawuran incidents often occur in spaces open to the general public. The gangs will sometimes vandalise public and private property.

[caption id="attachment_5905" align="aligncenter" width="500"] The arsenal of weaponry displayed by on Tawuran fighter boastfully on Twitter  [/caption]

What causes Tawuran?

There are many reasons why Tawuran continues in Indonesia.

It is argued that juvenile delinquencies has flourished due to the degradation of moral ethics amongst some Indonesian students. Scholars have identified that the spread of Tawuran is due to schools paying little attention to character building and student thought, failing to foster mature approaches to treating each other with respect.

Most cases occur between schools that share a long history of street fighting. Starting from Orientation day, new students are taught to hate students from enemy schools. This disharmony is implanted as part of a tradition inherited from senior classmates to junior classmates. Nowadays, not even the root cause for two schools to be fighting against each other is of importance, only the knowledge that a students from an adversary school is their enemy.

Students perceive winning a Tawuran fight as a demonstration of strength and toughness, placing them higher up into a chain of school hireachy in which the those at the top are feared by the rest. Senior students will ask first years to join their gang. In the case where a student refuses, they will be branded as someone with no solidarity to their Almamater. The gang will threaten them by saying that unless the student joins them, they will not defend the student from pursuit by an adversary school’s fighters. Peer pressure is often the strongest reason for Tawuran’s existence in Indonesia.

Joining the school’s gang earns the adoration of fellow classmates who encourage them to use violent methods to defend their Almamater. This harmful perception leads to a lack of respect for sportsmanship among students. At various inter-school sports competitions, the winning team may have their school’s pride tested by follow up street fighting against an opposing school.

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Tawuran may be conducive to the environment in which a student lives in. This has been the case for those living in densely populated areas. Provided only with low levels of education in families that are financially strangled or living in the slums of Jakarta, some students join Tawuran gangs as a means of survival.

Solutions to ending Tawuran

It is undeniable that concrete efforts are needed to end the continuous phenomenon of street fighting in Indonesia. The government must issue a law prohibiting Tawuran with stern penalties to both the students and the schools involved in the brawls. Strong warnings must be given to students who perpetrate violence and incite hatred among other students. A possible tactic is participating student’s suspension from school.

Enforcing punishments should be complimented with efforts to promote and educate Indonesian society about the dangers of Tawuran. This can be carried out through public seminars and announcements, and in mainstream media. Media production industries need to consider the impact of serials or movies that depict gang violence and street fighting in a glorified and unrealistic manner on its young viewership.

Education that pays attention to both academic achievements and character building should be promoted by the Ministry of Education. Studies on moral ethnics could be incorporated into standard curriculum, and given equal priority and time as other studies such Science and Mathematics. The government must realise that to develop the country’s next leaders, it is not sufficient enough to only emphasis academic qualifications. Respect for other people must also be taught if the country is to sustain a peaceful and dignified Indonesia.

Schools should foster closer communications with pupils’ parents, as efforts to develop students’ characters take place not only in school, but also at home and with their families.

Tawuran is a serious problem affecting the peacefulness of everyday life in Indonesia. Efforts need to be made by different sectors of society in order to promote a culture of respect among high school students, lest they grow up to continue the volatile practice of Tawuran into adulthood.

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Thailand’s sexy problem

Jordi Rudd Hughes

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

 

Bangkok is a hedonist’s paradise. Cheap food, luxury hotels and a rampant sex trade are fuelled by local lust and foreign adventurism. But this all comes at a cost.

Roaring tunes, bright lights and scantly clad women assaulted my senses as I walked down ‘Soi Cowboy’ last July. The world of go-go bars, massage parlours and street girls is disparate to quaint Canberra. On the surface it appeared harmless; jovial workers solicited and chatted with the diverse group of revellers enjoying late night debauchery.

[caption id="attachment_5801" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Image: Roger Price, Flickr[/caption]

But the industry has significant problems. Its status as a prosperous yet illegal grey industry means regulation is difficult. As a result, 200,000-300,000 sex workers are at risk of exploitation and Sexually Transmissible Infections.

Thailand’s foreign minister has recently vowed to eradicate the industry, and instead aims to capture the tourist market, worth 10% of the economy, with its beaches and temples.

This isn’t the best option.

The sex industry is incredibly valuable to both the Thai economy and the livelihoods of the Thai people. Regulation, therefore, is a superior option. A crackdown on the industry would result in a decline of tourists, burdening an already struggling economy.

Health related issues are also a huge stain on the industry. HIV prevalence in female sex workers is estimated to be between 3-20 per cent, with young people, migrants and those in urban areas at greater risk of transmission. STIs like syphilis are herpes are also common. Risks are not only isolated to workers; customers are at risk as well.

Recent police raids have highlighted the presence of underage prostitutes in various Bangkok brothels. These girls are predominantly victims of human trafficking from neighbouring countries or rural areas. They are forced or coerced into lives of prostitution to escape poverty. They are not subject to labour protections and often live in extremely adverse conditions imprisoned by debt-bondage (working to pay off travel/board debts).

Thailand’s sex industry is worth between 2 – 14 per cent of its GDP and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods depend on it. The government receives substantial revenue from venue licensing fees and rampant corruption. World Outreach International estimates 4.2 million men have come to Thailand purely for sex services every year.

Due to the inherent risk and the stigma surrounding the profession, workers earn an average of US$800 a month, over double the national average. Rural families of sex workers receive US$300 million a year in remittances as a result, exceeding the budgets of some aid programs.

Prostitution’s illegality means the government cannot effectively regulate the industry. STI prevention programs are self-regulated by venues, and HIV testing is only required every three months. Workers can easily skip testing and return to work, while freelance sex workers are not subject to any testing. Legalisation and regulation of the industry would improve these practices.

It is true that sex tourism fuels demand for prostitution services and thus promotes trafficking. The UN has cited corruption as a ‘large barrier’ in its fight against human trafficking.  Regulating the industry will reduce corruption and trafficking, but will not eradicate this problem completely. It is a moral dilemma that the government must contemplate. The immense economic benefit that the industry brings to its workers, their families and the government must be considered as well.

[caption id="attachment_5811" align="aligncenter" width="419"] Image: Matt Greenfield, Flickr[/caption]

The government can better protect workers from exploitation by providing them with legal status. The UN has reported that workplace protections are not followed in the sex industry, and as a result ‘workplace conditions, OH&S and workers’ rights (are) being ignored.’ Legalisation of the industry will allow for more effective regulation. Employers will have to improve the conditions and safety of workers. Additionally, workers will be given the opportunity to unionise, giving them collective bargaining powers against employers.

There is an immense economic benefit to legalising the sex industry. In 2003, when Thailand considered legalising prostitution, the National Economic and Social Development think tank estimated the industry to be worth US$1.2 billion a year to the government. Thailand is currently experiencing limited economic prosperity and growing the tax base through regulation would help the nation tackle problems like human trafficking, corruption and its poor health record.

I want Bangkok to continue being a crazy utopia of indulgence; it’s a refreshing break from the real world. However, when I next enjoy the atmosphere of the city’s thriving precincts, it would be very satisfying to see a flourishing, regulated industry with a working population that is better protected.

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