The trade in Asian women

March 24, 1993

By Karen Fredericks

The planned launch of War of the Sexes, a book on how to find and marry a Filipina woman, was thwarted by the angry response of Filipina women in Perth last month. The author of the book, Kenneth Morgan, was inundated with angry phone calls warning that if he tried to go ahead with the launch, publicised in the February 20 West Australian, he would face an angry protest.

Morgan's book was described by the West Australian as "a no-nonsense mix of semi-autobiographical fiction and short essays which tells the lonely Aussie bloke how to discover happiness in mid and later life". The book advises, among other things, that the average cost of a Filipina bride is $3000, making them less expensive than a second-hand car.

Morgan recommends "virginal" women as the best wives, and asserts that the main advantage of taking a Filipina virgin for a wife is that "when a [Filipina] girl child emerges from her mother's womb, she is meant by God and her parents to grow up to be feminine and to love man in a monogamous marriage". For this reason, he says, Filipina women are more suited to marriage because "they expect to put more into a relationship than they get out of it".

The publication of this book is a reminder of the continuing racism and sexism which oppress the estimated 20,000 Filipina women brought to Australia specifically to marry. It also raises, again, the issue of First World exploitation of Third World women and children.

A glance at the "introduction agency" listing in the yellow pages for any Australian city provides evidence that an industry which openly trades in human lives, the industry which spawned Kenneth Morgan's inhuman book, continues to flourish in this country.

"Over 2000 ladies here and overseas, for friendship or marriage. Free photos and tour details available. Open 7 days", reads one display ad in the 1993 Sydney yellow pages.

The super-exploitation of Filipina women mirrors the super- exploitation of the Philippine economy by First World business interests. In 1990 the New Internationalist reported that repayment of the $28 billion foreign debt required 63% of all export earnings of the country and represented 39% of the 1990 national budget. The $2.5 billion in foreign currency that Filipina "mail order brides", domestic helpers, chambermaids, prostitutes and contract workers overseas sent back to the Philippines in 1988 was equivalent to one-third of export income. The then president, Cory Aquino, referred to

these people, collectively, as the "new heroes of our country".

Filipina, Thai, Burmese and other Asian women and children are exploited through the industries that trade in human lives within their own countries also. The same forces which leave many women little choice but to place their names on the books of foreign "introduction agencies" or to find work as domestic slaves in the North, also compel women and, increasingly, children, to enter the sex tourism industries. In many cases there is no element of "choice" involved, not even the theoretical "choice" between starvation and prostitution. Many children are either sold into sex slavery by their desperately poor parents or kidnapped by sex-slave traders.

The "choices" open to Asian sex workers are illustrated by the case of the 33 young Burmese women discovered in June of 1992 when police raided a brothel north of Phuket. The women were imprisoned in a compound surrounded with barbed wire and a potentially lethal electrified fence. Despite the dangers, three had recently attempted to escape, but had been caught, stripped naked and savagely beaten with steel coat hangers.

In extreme poverty, both for individuals and for the country as a whole, foreign tourism is of critical importance, and sex tourism has found a foothold as the most lucrative way to extract money from foreigners. Historically local authorities have either encouraged the trade in human beings or, at best, turned a blind eye to it. Even today, with international pressure mounting to stem child prostitution, the most common response is to arrest and detain child prostitutes.

In an irate letter to the Bangkok Post in January, a British confessed sex tourist, John Lythgoe, railed against new regulations enacted by Thai authorities in an attempt to reduce child prostitution. Requirements that prostitutes carry identification indicating their age had destroyed "the free-wheeling atmosphere that had always made Pattaya so much fun", he said.

"I come [to Thailand] with a minimum of $10,000 cash and credit cards with my only objective to have as much fun as possible", wrote Lythgoe. "I don't always spend it all, but on departure one of Pattaya's lovely lasses always convinces me to donate any remaining funds so that she can pay her ailing mother's hospital bill or some such ... Thailand always seemed to know that the secret to providing truly good nightlife is to control it absolutely as little as possible."

Lythgoe concluded his letter by saying that the dampening of his "fun" by the new regulations was sufficient to have caused him to cut his visit short and to travel, instead, to Switzerland for a skiing holiday.

Lythgoe's hypocritical "concern" for the women and children of Pattaya nevertheless correctly identifies the reason sex tourism has been tolerated in Asia for so long — economics. Only in a country in which it is necessary to enter prostitution in order to pay for medical treatment would it have been possible for the exploitation and degradation of women and children to have reached such plague proportions.

Australian business interests have not failed to see the potential for profit. Research conducted by the Melbourne-based Network Against Sex Tours indicates that least 25% of the 20,000 Filipina brides in Australia were introduced to their husbands by commercial "introduction agencies" and that a further 25% met their husbands when the men were visiting the Philippines on commercially organised "sex tours".

The Network Against Sex Tours has uncovered the existence of a complex system of Australian-owned introduction agencies, travel companies, hotels, bars and nightclubs all oriented to the exploitation of women and children in Thailand and the Philippines. A spokesperson for the network told Green Left that she did not wish to be named because she is aware of people who have openly campaigned against the industry in the past who have received death threats. "We are dealing with very rich and powerful interests here", she said.

A journalist for the Melbourne Age confirmed the existence of one Australian group specialising in sex tourism by approaching a Melbourne travel agent and requesting information on a holiday which would provide him with "girls, girls, girls". The agent handed him a Swagman Hotels brochure and advised him to try Bangkok. "It's easier to go to Bangkok", he said. "If you want a wife go to Manila, if you want a woman go to Bangkok."

There is a chain of Swagman Hotels in the Philippines and in Thailand. The Network Against Sex Tours has linked ownership of Swagman Hotels, Swagman Resorts and Swagman Travel to a consortium of eight Australians, at least one of whom lives in the Philippines. The general sales agent in Australia for the five Swagman Hotels in the Philippines is Asian Dreams Travel. Asian Dreams shares its Brisbane office with Swagman Travel.

The network believes the Swagman group also owns at least one of the most infamous bars in the Philippine city of Angeles, Lovebirds, at which 24 hours with "the woman of your choice" can cost as little as $25. Many other clubs and bars which specialise in prostitution in Manila, such as Sundowner, Australian Club, Kangaroo Club and Kings Cross Club, are also Australian-owned, according to network informers.

The network estimates that around 50,000 Australian men travel to South-East Asia, mainly to the Philippines and Thailand, on organised "sex tours" each year. But the exact number is

impossible to calculate, as the industry is so well concealed.

If Australian involvement in sex tourism receives any coverage in the establishment media in this country, it is usually for its titillation value, in Penthouse or on Hard Copy, or because of the increasing risk to Australian sex tourists of contracting the AIDS virus.

"Sex and tourism is killing 'straight' Australians", warned the headline of a feature article in the June 23, 1992, Bulletin. The piece points out that at that time 67% of sex workers in Thailand were HIV positive. "It is not hyperbole to suggest", it goes on, "that most sexually adventurous Australian travellers will have sex with local girls in that beautiful and hospitable country ... It is not unreasonable to fear the consequences of their returning to Australia with a virus that they can pass on to their wives, lovers, or unborn children."

Dispassionately, the journalist reports that "the prime reason for the more rapid spread of HIV in the heterosexual communities of developing rather than developed countries is the poorer standards of health and nutrition. As a result it is far more commonplace for ulcers to be present in the mouths and vaginas of women in those countries, allowing the virus to be passed by contact between blood and blood or semen and blood."

The report then focuses on the failure of the Australian travel industry to implement a "travelsafe" campaign to warn sex tourists of the dangers of unprotected sex through in-flight videos and pamphlets distributed by travel agencies.

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations in January commended Lauda Air for including condoms with the toothpaste, combs and moisturisers in the toiletries kits provided to passengers.

"By taking this simple step", said the federation's president, Bill Bowtell, in the Canberra Times, "Lauda Air has demonstrated real concern for the welfare of their passengers ... With very high rates of HIV being reported among male and female sex workers in Bangkok, for example, it is vital that condoms and factual information should be provided for travellers to that city."

While the free availability of condoms is obviously desirable, Lauda Air's record in the promotion of sex tourism provides a context for this seeming benevolence.

The June/July 1992 edition of Lauda's in-flight magazine Up contained a cartoon series depicting four fictitious postcards from Lauda Air destinations. The "postcard from Australia" featured, inevitably, a kangaroo. The "postcard from Thailand" featured a naked pre-pubescent girl surrounded

by a heart inscribed with the words "from Thailand with love". The text describes the exploits of a sex tourist in a club called the "Baby Club" who recommends the round-the-clock sexual services available in Thailand.

The magazine sparked a spirited protest by women from the Taskforce to End Child Sexploitation in Thailand (TECST). Lauda Air eventually ceased distributing the magazine but, despite TECST requests for a public apology to Thai women and children, none has been forthcoming.

Fear of AIDS seems at least partly responsible for an increased demand for child prostitutes reported by aid workers in Thailand and the Philippines. Many brothels now specialise in virgins or "cherry girls", advertising them as "Guaranteed AIDS-free". It seems that many sex tourists will believe anything if it makes them feel safe, from "You can't get AIDS from a blow job" to "I'm your girlfriend. You can't get AIDS from a girlfriend."

The youth of prostitutes is, of course, no guarantee whatsoever. When police raided a Thai brothel last October, all but one of the 18 girls they discovered — aged between 14 and 19 years — were infected with HIV and other sexually transmissible diseases. A child as young as 18 months has been discovered suffering from gonorrhoea, inflicted upon him through sexual abuse by three US military personnel stationed in the US naval base at Subic Bay.

The Philippines branch of the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) estimates that there are at least 20,000 children between the ages of six and 15 engaged in some form of prostitution in the Philippines. Thai police surveys estimate the number of prostitutes in Thailand as roughly 70,000 and the number under 18 years at around 20,000. A survey by the Foundation for Children in Thailand puts the total number of adult prostitutes at around 2 million and child prostitutes at 600,000. The covert nature of the industry makes accurate assessments impossible.

Although it seldom makes news in Australia, there have been cases of deportation of Australian nationals from the Philippines for particularly severe cases of child sexual abuse. In recent years, however, no Australian has been arrested in Thailand on sex-related charges.

The executive secretary of ECPAT in Thailand, Suradat Srisang, says this is because Thai law enforcement authorities treat foreign visitors "like God".

"They occasionally arrest the children but they never touch the foreigners", she told the Australian on October 26. "There's no dearth of tough legislation to deal with child prostitution, the problem is lack of enforcement.

"Those involved in the sex business are people in authority. These people may be members of parliament who become ministers and police officers who have vested interests in brothels."

Suradat's observations are born out by the Thai media's treatment of child prostitution.

The Bangkok Post of September 3, 1992, in an article headlined "Police sweep of bars nets 40 child prostitutes", reported, "In various resort bars last month the tourist police arrested over 40 children working as prostitutes or hustlers for foreign tourists".

Police chief Somsak Wannawak is quoted as saying that the arrested children are sent to the Public Welfare Department's Ban Huay Pong rehabilitation centre "to get them back on the right track".

"They are booked and registered and if we find them on the streets or in the bars again we treat them as repeat offenders. Then the penalty gets much harsher", he said.

The so-called "reform houses" in Thailand are a source of great fear among sex workers. They are seen as no different from jail. Many police use the threat of detention in a reform house as a way to force women and children to continue to work for pimps or brothels receiving police protection.

The attitude of authorities, an attitude which is pervasive right up to the upper echelons of government in both Thailand and the Philippines, makes recent attempts by the Australian government to be seen to be taking action appear quite pathetic.

Following the ECPAT-sponsored conference "The Child and the Tourist" in Melbourne in November, Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe began discussions with the Thai prime minister regarding the possibility of deportation of sex offenders convicted under Thai law to serve their jail sentences back in Australia. The proposal follows a discussion in Germany and England over the introduction of laws which would cover citizens returning home after participating in sex tourism involving children under 14 years.

These proposals offer no solution. They still rely on detection of the child abuser in the country in which the abuse occurs, and Howe's proposal relies on the ability of the Thai authorities to detect the crime, arrest the offender and process him through the Thai courts — a feat which has not occurred even once over at least the last decade.

Even if the odd offender were caught and punished, it would serve only to heighten the illusion that something were being done. But the problem wouldn't go away.

As long as our Asian neighbours remain so indebted to the North that they have nothing left, after repayments, to spend on their own development, their citizens will remain super-exploited, and women and children will suffer most.

Melba Marginson of the Centre for Philippine Concerns, Australia points out that Australian foreign aid to the Philippines is only $20 million, and that most of this goes to military purposes. In contrast the "mail order bride" and sex tourism industries bring billions into the country every year.

Not only is closure of these industries impossible; in some cases it may even cause increased misery, unless accompanied by economic and other assistance for displaced sex workers. Witness the increased poverty for the people of Olongapo, the city which was almost entirely dependent on the "rest and recreation" trade with the US military stationed at Subic Bay, when the base was closed.

The horrors of sex tourism and the trade in human beings need to be stared directly in the face. They need to be dragged out from under the carpets of the First World and acknowledged as the logical result of economic, political and social rape and pillage in the Third World. There are no acts of parliament which will solve this crisis.

Those who oppose sex tourism have the same demands as those who fight for freedom for all oppressed people in all oppressed nations: cancel the Third World debt, increase humanitarian aid to the South and support the struggle to end the oppression of two-thirds of the earth's population by the tiny minority of people who control the world economy.

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