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Tok Khiew


`Tok khiew' or "green harvest" originally meant "pledging green paddy" for loans.

The term had been used extensively for decades as a symbol of the farmers' hardship. It was often the case that most farmers did not have enough to sustain themselves while waiting for their paddy to mature enough for harvest. So they pledged their green paddy in the field to the local money men, usually rice millers, as a mortgage in return for a sum of money at a very deep discount, often up to 50 percent of the actual value of the harvest.

Recently the term `tok khiew' has acquired a new sinister meaning. Instead of pledging green paddy, farmers pledge their young daughters, often 12-13 years old, to the procurers in return for money or other material things such as houses or pick-up trucks. The young girls may be pledged when they are still in school or as young as Prathom 5 (grade 5). When they finish the compulsory Prathom 6, these young girls will be sent to serve the flesh market in Bangkok or other major provinces, including Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Hat Yai and Phuket.

They have to work as prostitutes in brothels, or any other disguised brothels such as short-time hotels, restaurants, tea-houses, massage parlours, cocktail lounges, membership clubs, and karaoke bars for a number of years to pay off their (parents') debts.

Recognising that Thailand will never be able to rid itself of the problem of prostitution, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai nevertheless, insisted very early in his term that he would like to see the problem of child prostitution licked during his administration. "I understand that it is near-impossible to get rid of prostitution in this country due to several reasons, but at least we can do something about child prostitution. "My government will never tolerate child prostitution, and those government officials who fail to carry out this policy will be harshly dealt with," vowed Chuan. Interior Minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh echoed Chuan's remarks and warned police officers to urgently tackle the problems or else face disciplinary action.

Seeing their superiors were serious about the child prostitution problem, the police began to crack down on child prostitutes. Those prostitutes who did not have ID cards would face arrest, and if they were aliens usually Burmese or Chinese they would face deportation. In this country, every Thai citizen has to register for a National Identity Card when they turn 15. So if a prostitute does not have an ID, she is considered a child or an alien. Either way, she can no longer work openly as a prostitute.

Chuan did specify the age of a child prostitute, but the police seem to consider 15 as the minimum acceptable age as the National I.D. Card bestows the title of `Nai' or "Mr" for males and `Nang Sao' or "Miss" for female card-holders. Below the age of 15, a boy is known as `Dek Chai' and a girl has the title of `Dek Ying'.

From a legal standpoint, 13 is considered the minimum age that a child can be engaged in sex with a partner if his or her parent consents. Eighteen is the minimum age of consent without parental approval. So a paedophile (one who is sexually attracted to children) can engage in sex with a child prostitute with no punishment if the child is at least 13 years old. As 15 is the most convenient age for checking the age of child prostitutes, police often raid entertainment places and check the ID cards of those girls who work there.

Police raids were carried out quite often when Chuan first made his policy stance and died down as time went by. The raids began to pick up again when Pol Gen Pratin Santiprabhob was appointed acting police director-general in November, and was again intensified when the new police restructuring went into force in late January. When it seemed to die down, the issue of police kickbacks in Chon Buri rekindled the flame and the police began to conduct raids of various entertainment places again to check for child prostitutes.

For the past month, the issue of `tok khiew' began to emerge officially. On February 17, there was a meeting at the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare attended by several government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the problems of prostitution and the trade of human flesh. Arthorn Chanthavimol, deputy permanent secretary of Education, revealed that after April 15, the traditional Thai New Year, there will be a new batch of girls entering the flesh trade as the newcomers will follow the senior prostitutes when they visit home. Arthorn said that there are about 1,000-1,500 young girls from Chiang Rai likely to enter the oldest profession, approximately 1,000 from Phayao and some more from other provinces. "The ministry has figures as compiled by our teachers that tell us that already there are over 2,000 young girls who are already pledged [tok khiew].

These young girls are only 13-14 years old. They are completing Prathom 6 and some of them were pledged when they were still in Prathom 5," he said. Laddawan Wongsriwong, a woman MP and native of Phayao Province, admitted the problem of `tok khiew' is very widespread in the North, including Phayao. "When a girl was born into a family, there would be a celebration because the girl, especially if she is good-looking, will bring wealth and prosperity into the family," she said, acknowledging that the problem has been going on for a long time. "The procurers are getting sophisticated. They usually have an agent within a village who will act as a middleman, but more likely the agent is a woman who is a former prostitute herself. The agent will approach a family with pretty young girls who are still in school. They may even offer to build houses or give a pick-up truck as an advance for the very pretty ones," she said during a recent TV programme highlighting the issue.

Siriphorn Panyasen, a noted social worker from Lampang, said that the problem of `tok khiew' was not easy to solve as senior prostitutes were often recruiters and that parents of the young girls enjoy the luxurious lives brought on by their children's sex labour. "Instead of thinking that it is morally wrong, they [young girls] think only of gaining material comforts that their bodies can bring for them and their family," she said, adding that girls are taught to obey their parents and would be considered a good child if she can repay her upbringing. Samphan Thongsamak, minister of Education, said that apart from poverty, `tok khiew' could be attributed to copycat fashion as young girls saw some successful prostitutes coming home with riches. "Those who are not successful and/or catch dreaded diseases such as Aids would keep quiet," he said while presiding over the ceremony to expand educational opportunities in Chiang Rai on Thursday.

Pol Lt Gen Prasarn Wongyai, commissioner of Police Region 5, revealed that the agent would `tok khiew' in the form of personal loan contract while girls are still in school. The police could not do anything as the loan contract is not illegal.

Another method is to marry the young girls and then sell them as prostitutes in Bangkok, but this method works only once as most rural folks are now aware of such a trick, he said. However, Pol Lt Gen Prasarn discounted press report that some policemen are `tok khiew' agents themselves. "Tell me who and I will punish them harshly," he said.

Asst Prof Napaporn Thavanond from Chulalongkorn University, during the TV programme "To the Point" last Monday, said that people should not judge those parents who sell their daughters from a high moral ground as they did not have much opportunity in their lives. "In my research, rural folks now don't love rural ways of life as agriculture only brings on mounting debt. For this reason, `tok khiew' is understandable if a family wants to have a better material life," she said. Boonserm Thavornkul, Chart Thai MP from Phichit, blamed the system which allowed local moneymen to charge astronomical interest rates which forced most farmers into heavy debt, the only way they could get rid of these debts was to sell their daughters for prostitution.

On the same TV panel, Saphasit Khumpraphan of the Children Foundation, said that the problem of `tok khiew' cannot be attributed to the supply problem alone. Demand should also be considered as the main cause. "If there is no demand for child prostitutes, do you think these young girls can sell their bodies?" he asked. Arthorn Chanthavimol, who was the first to raise the `tok khiew' issue officially, said that the NGOs and Chiang Mai University are trying to solve the `tok khiew' problem by giving scholarships to young girls to continue their secondary education for three more years. The amount is 3,000 baht per head. The target is 1,000 potential young prostitutes. Yet he conceded this amount was not enough. "10,000 baht is more realistic. I think the government should invest by helping these 2,000 young girls at the tune of only 20 million baht a year, which will be cheaper than paying for Aids treatment in the future." MP Laddawan agreed that more scholarships are needed for young girls' families. But they should be supplemented by occupational training. "I have helped set up women's sewing cooperatives in Phayao. Young girls will be trained to make clothes, and we try to find orders for regular employment," she said. However, she conceded that her job was not easy. "When I went door to door to explain the evils of `tok khiew' I was often met with a hostile reception from certain families who are getting rich from selling their daughters. "I was even threatened by these families that they would not vote for me during the next election as they thought that I caused them to lose face," said the MP who garnered the largest vote in the province. "But I am ready to lose a few thousand votes as I don't want my province to be known as the supplier of young girls for child prostitution," she said, adding that more and more families are beginning to understand her sincerity in trying to help them.

MP Boonserm said the Government should help get rid of farmers' debts and provide them with low-interest loans. He also urged the government set up more training centres and industrial estates in the provinces. Saphasit said the solution must begin with the patrons. He advocated allowing guest workers from Burma to bring their wives along so that they do not have to rely on prostitutes.

For foreign tourists, the TAT should make sure that no travel agents supply any details on prostitution to their customers. Saphasit reserved the harshest criticism for the lifestyles of Thai men who frequent brothels either directly or disguised as entertainment places such as cafes, membership clubs, or karaoke bars. "We should inculcate the young men with an attitude of 'the New Generation Won't Patronise Prostitutes'. Support groups should be created in universities to change the attitude of having sex with prostitutes as part of an initiation rite. "For the attitude change to be successful, `Phu Yai' [elders] must set an example, especially senior government officials," he said.

Asst Prof Naphaphorn said `tok khiew' exists because of the network. The only way to break up the network is to get rid of the agent. "Even in schools, some students themselves act as agents, supplying young girls to clients who are waiting in hotels. The young girls are not professional but want pocket money to have fun in pubs and dance halls. "If there are no agents, they could not become prostitutes as they don't know the route, however much they are willing," she said. Naphaphorn agreed with social pressure measures. "We should start condemning those who frequent child prostitutes, starting with friends or close associates," she said. Naphaphorn also advocated creating jobs in rural areas and expanding educational opportunities three more years. Minister Samphan believes in extending education as one of the preventive measures. While in Chiang Rai on Thursday, he requested the cooperation of respected monks in urging parents to continue their children's' education three more years. He also urged the police to take strong measures against `tok khiew' agents who are well-known locally. Samphan also urged monks to stop praising young prostitutes when they return home temporarily to make `khatin' (annual) merits, as this continuing praise sets a bad example. The minister even proposed bringing parents of potential `tok khiew' to come to Bangkok to witness with their own eyes the real conditions in brothels, tea houses and bars. Saphasit of the Children Foundation said that the problem of `tok khiew' was not easy to solve as long as the tradition of selling daughters continues. "It's no use rescuing the girls and bailing them out if their mothers continue to sell them back to the procurers," he said sadly.

Source "A green harvest of a different kind" by Kamol Hengkietisak written in Bangkok Post: March 20, 1994


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