Two teenage girls wearing spaghetti string tops and blue jeans lie on separate mattresses in a dimly lit, 10 x 10 foot room in Rangoon that is chilled by an air-conditioner and redolent with perfume.
“Mingalarbar [Good evening],” the girls say, in an imperfect Burmese accent, when two men in their 50s enter the room.
|Fear marks the faces of sex workers who suspect a Chinese police raid might be imminent in border city of Jiegao, China. (Photo: Than Aung/ The Irrawaddy) |
Each girl takes a man and asks him to lie down on a mattress, then cleans his feet and begins to massage his body. After about fifteen minutes, a black curtain is drawn between the two beds and the girls lie down as well.
Most Rangoon prostitutes operate under the cover of “massage parlors” such as the one these girls work in, as well as karaoke bars, guest houses and other business fronts. However, sex workers can also be found on the streets, around the markets, at bus stations and in front of movie theatres.
Massage parlor businesses stretch all the way from downtown Rangoon to its suburbs. Several local car brokers claim there are as many as 1,000 such parlors in Rangoon Division, including around Bayintnaung Junction and crowded bus stations such as Aungmingalar and Dagon-Ayar Express.
“If I am not mistaken, there are about 100 massage parlors, guest houses and karaoke rooms near Bayintnaung Junction alone. All of those places are where people can enjoy sexual pleasure,” says one car broker.
Many girls who work in massage parlors come from Cyclone Nargis-affected areas in Irrawaddy Division and armed conflict-affected areas in Kachin, Shan and Karen states. There are also girls from under-developed areas in Chin and Arakan states, but the number is reportedly small.
“Some girls don’t even understand Burmese. I have to use body language to ask them to do what I want,” says a businessman in Bayintnaung who is a regular massage parlor and karaoke bar customer.
The charge in many massage parlors is 2,500-3,500 kyat [US $3-4.5] per hour for an ordinary massage, but at least 15,000 kyat [US $19] if a customer wants sex.
There are reportedly two types of illegal massage parlors—those paying regular fees of hundreds of thousands of kyat to the township police force, and those that do not pay anything. Many masseuses inquire about whether the massage parlor pays running fees before applying for a job, preferring to work in places that pay off the authorities.
A 25-year old girl who calls herself “Sophie” works at a massage parlor in a tall building near Hledan Market in Rangoon’s Kamayut Township. Speaking with an accent that betrays the fact that she is a non-Burman ethnic minority, she says she has worked at the brothel for three years.
“When I first arrived in Rangoon, I attended assistant nurse training and worked at a clinic afterward,” she says. “I earned 35,000 kyat [US $45] a month, but it wasn’t enough to cover my living expenses and I couldn’t send any money back home.”
Sophie says that a friend from her apartment building asked if she wanted a well-paying job, and when she said yes her friend brought her to the massage parlor.
“At first, I thought I would only provide massage to customers. But my friend told me that I wouldn’t be able to make more than 50,000 kyat a month if I only gave massage. She suggested that I don’t think too much, ask whatever amount of money I want from wealthy men and sleep with them for about an hour. Since then, I have become what I am now,” she says.
Sophie comes from Myitkyina, the capital of northern Kachin state. The oldest of four siblings, she left home before passing her 10th grade exam and traveled to Rangoon to make money for her six-person family. Despite the nature of her work, Sophie says that her life as a massage parlor sex worker is much comfortable than that of an assistant nurse, where she did not earn enough to support her family.
“I now can send 200,000 kyat [US $260] to my family every month. My parents neither know about my occupation nor ask what I do.