Promises of high-paid entertainment jobs lured the three Thai women to Myanmar, but they found themselves trapped into prostitution in Shan state near the Chinese border before they escaped, they said in telling the stories about their ordeal.
Sisters A and Aoy, and their friend, Ploy – all in their late 20s – said they had responded to a Facebook ad from a Thai broker named Nan, who promised that they could earn more than 50,000 baht (U.S. $1,485) per month in non-sex jobs in the entertainment industry in Myanmar.
“She said you will earn Chinese yuan, not Myanmar’s kyat. We thought that would be great revenue, so we decided to go,” Aoy, 27, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.
Instead, in order to repay debts, the three were forced into prostitution with Chinese customers in Laukkaing, a district inside the Kokang Self-Administered Zone in Shan state said to be rife with Chinese criminal activity.
“I never thought I would be tricked like this. Life was not as good as they told us,” Soy said during an interview in December, days after she and the two other women regained their freedom and returned to Thailand.
“We were starved of food, water, beaten up, forced to take drugs and perform prostitution.”
The women, who used pseudonyms to protect their privacy, were led into Lukkaing by members of a Myanmar trafficking ring along jungle routes from Chiang Mai, in northwestern Thailand.
Arriving at a hotel in the self-administered zone after nearly a week of walking, they met a Thai-speaking Mama San – a local term for a female pimp – who said they did not look as pleasant as in their profile pictures.
The woman said they each owed her 90,000 baht ($2,674) for travel costs plus a commission she had paid to Nan, and that they would have to work in sex services to pay off the debt.
“I was shocked,” Aoy’s older sister, A, 29, told BenarNews, saying they were later re-sold around the Chinese-influenced town in Shan state to work as prostitutes.
Pavena Hongsakul, founder of the Foundation for Children and Women, an NGO that helped rescue the trio, said that as countries reopen their borders as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, late-night businesses including sex services have flourished.
Pavena said human trafficking complaints more than doubled from 102 cases in 2021 to 255 cases in 2022. As many as 216 cases involved transnational trafficking.
“Myanmar ranked third in complaints, after Dubai and Bahrain. It is unusual because Myanmar was not in our records before. We are concerned because we share a common border,” Pavena told BenarNews, noting that her foundation had previously rescued Thai women lured to Myanmar to work as prostitutes.
The United States Institute of Peace said Myanmar is a center of action for Chinese criminal groups whose networks stretch far beyond that country’s borders. Organizations involved in illicit activities have gained a foothold throughout much of Southeast Asia and are working to corrupt local governments and economies, the institute said in a 2021 report.
“In Kokang, the political and economic leadership of the so-called Self-Administered Zone (SAZ) has built its entire power structure on gambling and related activity,” the report said.
“Kokang connections to Chinese criminal networks also run deep. Chinese court records document hundreds of criminal convictions related to illegal casinos, fraud, kidnapping, drugs and weapons in the Kokang SAZ.”
A, Aoy, Ploy had been working in a factory east of Bangkok but dreaming of better lives. Last September, they responded to the ad that led to their harrowing journey in neighboring Myanmar.
On Sept. 21, a broker took them to Bangkok where they flew to Chiang Mai. The next morning, a non-Thai speaking Burmese man began guiding them across mountainous routes destined for Shan state.
“He left us at an unknown hill and told us to walk downhill,” Ploy, 28, told BenarNews. “We were skeptical, but could not return because we lost our cellphone signal.
“At each stop, there were trafficking ring members who would take us from one point to another. Sometimes, they changed vehicles to avoid military detection at checkpoints,” she recalled, adding that the trip to Laukkaing took six days and five nights.
After their meeting with the Mama San, a Chinese man arrived. The Mama San told the sisters they were his property.
“She sold us to the Chinese owner of a karaoke bar for 250,000 baht [$7,422] each, but he refused to buy our friend, saying she was too fat,” A said.
“Mama San said we had to sign a six-month contract with the Chinese man and seized our passports and I.D. cards,” Aoy said.
Alone, Ploy said she was once taken to a room and drugged. She ended up being sold to another hotel whose boss was a Chinese pimp.
“Here they forced me to do sex services. I had no choice, so I had to accept it,” Ploy told BenarNews. “But no customer chose me.”
Laukkaing, a half-hour drive for Chinese tourists coming across the nearby border, features 10- to 20-story buildings housing hotels, Karaoke bars and entertainment places, Ploy said. She stayed at a 10-story hotel where men with guns guarded each floor.
“This town belongs to Chinese and uses yuan, not kyat. Business owners are all Chinese. The Chinese bosses hire military members armed with guns and grenades to take care of security, I didn’t know who was a real soldier or a militia,” she said.
‘Couldn’t close our eyes at night’
When the Chinese pimp granted her permission to leave the hotel, Ploy hired a motorcycle taxi to take her to the sisters’ hotel from which they fled together.
“A militia man gave us a safe place to stay. He hid us from the traffickers. Then we contacted our fathers and the Pavena Foundation,” Aoy said.
“We thought we would kill ourselves if the authorities could not help us. We were in the turf [of traffickers],” Ploy said. “We were frightened because they sent a message to the Thai broker, saying they would beat us up anywhere in China and Thailand.”
Aoy had similar fears.
“We couldn’t close our eyes at night. We stayed quiet, closed all doors and windows and tried to listen to hear if anything came close to us,” Aoy said.
On Nov. 1, Pavena and family members met with officials from the Thai-Myanmar Township Border Committee in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province to ask for help rescuing the women.
Myanmar authorities took them into custody and jailed the women on illegal entry charges.
They compared the jail to a chicken coop – wet, dirty and rat infested with no food and no clean water. They had to beg for food from male prisoners who were jailed just across from their quarters.
They were once given a black bucket containing half an omelet with rice, which they were forced to scoop up with their hands.
Myanmar authorities finally released the women on Nov. 27 after driving them to Tachileik, a Burmese town across from Chiang Rai.
On Facebook, Pavena posted news of the sisters being reunited with their father, who said, “Lesson learned, sweeties. Let’s go home and not go anywhere anymore.”
In 2022, the Thai police’s Anti Trafficking in Persons Division (ATPD) reported prosecuting 248 trafficking cases, compared with 188 in the previous year. Investigations revealed that more than half of the cases stemmed from illegal online recruitment.
In 2022, law enforcers arrested 57 people who were advertising high-paying jobs on social media.
“Nowadays, the bad guys can reach victims easily via social media portals and lure them into illicit jobs including prostitution,” police Maj. Gen. Saruti Kwaengsopha, the division chief, told BenarNews.
“We have been monitoring a movement of illegal recruitment luring job seekers to work overseas all the time because it involved transnational crimes,” Saruti said. “Job seekers may think it’s only a neighboring country where they can return home anytime.”
In October 2022, the ATPD and Malaysian police rescued a 13-year-old Thai girl who had been lured to work as a prostitute in Kuala Lumpur.
“We understand they have to struggle for a better life, to help support their families, but they have to be careful,” Saruti said.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Wilawan Watcharasakwej for BenarNews.