The Main Issue is Survival
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The Main Issue is Survival

By AUNG THET WINE/ THE IRRAWADDY Thursday, February 2, 2012


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.

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Peter Shwe Wrote:
I think somebody has got to open their mouth about reality. Due to poverty and lack of development in the country, it is not surprising thing that young girls are like this to fight for their survival and the family back home. In my opinion, the system that we operate in the country should be looked at. When people do not have education or their skill to support themselves, the first thing they will do is, they will find the contacts. If they found the person who is establishing the business like beauty parlors, this business owner will use these girls to enhance their business as mentioned in the article. Because it is not legal, people will do this behind the curtain. Sex workers should be registered legally. The reason I am saying is this business must be monitored by the Health Professions, to ensure that no STDs( Sexually Transmitted Diseases ) should be spread out in the public. This is very important to monitor these businesses. We do not want to die with STD like HIV, AIDs.

TAH Wrote:
Well I think just legalise this industry like in the West so that they can do their job professionally and also away from exploitation and oppression and discrimination. Just see this as one of professional jobs. What is the use of classifying this industry in Burma as illegal or un-social thing when there are many such establishments (all illegally or under the protection of local police fore)? Or in the face of even senior officers visiting them? Time is there to recognise them as legal and protect them, make them one part of country's economic growth.

Public View Wrote:
It is very embarrassing story to be heard. In my opinion, it is a sign of poverty and lack of education in our community. Whatever happens I do not want our the next young generation to learn these. We don't want our young generation to feed themselves with these subway jobs. People may be reluctant to work harder with skills using their knowledge and strength. The elder women are teaching their young generation to earn money in easy way doesn't sort their survivals out. What they don't understand is our country is not advanced like Europe countries. HIV and AIDS are easily able to spread up and it could loose a lot of lives in the country because there isn't effective protection and prevention from those communicable diseases. I feel ashamed that we shouldn't encourage these if we are unable to prevent the infection diseases. I would strongly urge that somebody has got to look into this in dept and to take appropriate actions for the sake of our long life and the country's goodness.

sai suriya Wrote:
Totally rubbish articles as if non burman lady are not working in this kind of trade. Why is the specifically mention ethnic ladies? Be fair. Most Bamar ladies are working as well.

Disgusting the way they portray this articles. Do you think Bamar girl are shame to this kind of job?

Liz Hilton Wrote:
well another same old same old ... Why haven't your journalists spoken with the Burma sex worker leaders and their organization based in Rangoon, Mandalay and many other towns? They have a membership of over 7000 sex workers fighting to improve their situation..(we have always respected you enough to use 'Burma' not 'Myanmar' when will you respect us enough to use sex worker not prostitute?) Many are even Burman and educated go figure. Why is it on this issue it seems Irrawaddy is unable to say anything useful, new, or even relevant? Some -ism or other I guess

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