The cultural history of Thai sex workers from the north

Some songs capture the political imagination of the moment – in 1988, that song was ‘Mae Sai’ by Carabao. “Who could be in as much pain as the women of the North?” sings the soft voice of Thierry Carabao. The theme was resurrected in 2007 by Lek Carabao, with a song called Tok Keow. “You’ve been reserved since you were young. When you approach womanhood, the countdown quickens.”

What is Tok Keow? The English translation is ‘Green Harvest’. One definition from the Thai dictionary refers to it as the practice of middlemen providing advance payment to farmers for rice that was not yet harvested.

Another definition is the practice by which agents would ‘reserve’ adolescent girls from their parents, to be ‘collected’ once they graduated from middle school. Young women from Mae Sot, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai would ‘go South’ (long tai) to Songkhla, Surat, Bangkok, to work in entertainment centers. Many would become sex workers. The practice was particularly prevalent in the 1990s – at the height of Carabao’s popularity, and also at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Tok keow does not describe the experience of the majority of sex work in the industry, some of which is voluntary, all of which deserve the kind of legal protection Empower Foundation advocates for. It also does not describe the experience of the majority of women living in Thailand’s populous and diverse North, especially not now. Nevertheless, it was a real historical phenomenon, with a living legacy today.

Ann’s story

Under Sarit’s ‘developmental authoritarian state’, the sex industry bloomed in Bangkok and the Central-South. This was due to a combination of rising middle-class income, an influx of male migrant workers from rural provinces, American soldiers arriving in Southeast Asia for the Vietnam war and a new inflow of tourists and businessmen. In 1992, a study showed that 35% of sex workers in Bangkok were from Phayao or Chiang Rai.

Motives behind engaging in tok keow were often complex – especially for parents. There were harsh economic realities, poverty was ever-present. The price of rice dropped during the 1970s and 80s as Indonesia began to grow its own. ‘Modernity’ had arrived, as promised by the developmental state, and it demanded of everyone visible symbols of wealth – television sets and motorcycles became important markers of social status, especially in rural villages. Young women justified ‘going south’ on the basis of unshakeable filial piety. กตัญญู and บุญคุณ – gratefulness/piety and moral debt – were words that surfaced again and again in memoirs and interviews. The social stigma around sex work lessened, bolstered by virtuous examples of former sex workers returning home to buy their parents new houses.

Ann hadn’t heard of the term Tok keow until she came to the Daughters Education Program (DEP), a center for vocational education specifically designed to prevent vulnerable girls from being forced into the sex industry. She was originally from Mae Sai but now lives in Tak, running the Health Without Frontiers program that works with migrant children in the area.

“They would talk about ‘purity’ – girls who had not yet lost their virginity would yield a higher price. They compared it to rice that wasn’t yet ready for the harvest.”

“In my muu baan, all the older girls went, friends my age went. In the beginning they didn’t go far – Bangkok, the South. After that, girls who were older went abroad, to Malaysia.”

Ann disputes the notion that agents were shadowy middle-men coming to kidnap women from the villages – for her, the ‘agents’ were women within the community who had ‘gone South’ into sex work and had come back to recruit others. “I was still in my first year of secondary school at the time, and I had very red cheeks. They said, we would give a million for you – a million baht, on the spot. They said the same to my friend too.”

Her father passed away and her mother remarried – her mother and stepfather encouraged her to accept the offer, work or marry. “At the time, my family was very poor – but nearly all families in the North were poor.” She ended up turning it down, wanting to seek further education.

Ann heard of the Daughters Education Program through a friend and knew that they were looking to fund young girls from poor families through vocational education. “Our house had one TV set – a small, very old one, only black and white. I hid the TV when they came to survey my house, because I was so afraid that I wouldn’t qualify.”

At DEP, she learned to sew and underwent other training programs. She enjoyed community organizing and training, so she worked to educate villagers and workers in surrounding factories. She also created an education program for women in a nearby brothel – teaching girls as young as thirteen.

She doesn’t regret the decision not to go into sex work. “My mother wanted to be wealthy all at once. To this day we’re still not wealthy, but we have enough, we don’t have to ask anyone for help.”

“We women of the north feel a strong obligation, a strong sense of filial piety to our parents. We have to look after our parents. It’s something that goes deep, perhaps it’s a part of the culture of us Northern people.”

Dok Kham Tai and the leadership of Ladawan Wongsriwong

Ann remembers, “the term tok keow started in Dok Kham Tai district, in Phayao province, and after that spread rapidly to other provinces. The entire district went South.”

In the 1980s, Dok Kham Tai was known as a ‘mill producing sex workers.’ A 1972 movie called Monrak Dok Kham Tai (Love Spell of Dok Kham Tai) was made of the life of a sex worker from the district, and by 1990 some sex workers from outside the district even began marketing themselves as ‘born in Dok Kham Tai.’

The influx of sex workers from Phayao coincided with the AIDS crisis. In 1990, Phayao had five reported cases of HIV/AIDS – by 1994, this number had skyrocketed to 782. 10% of pregnant women were HIV positive. It would peak at 1,819 cases in 1997. Phayao had by far the highest HIV-infection rate in all of Thailand.

On the ground, the social and psychological effects were devastating. “For those who went into sex work and contracted AIDS, they would build a small house at the back of the village so they wouldn’t enter the village. They would bring food and water to the house, just like being in quarantine during Covid-19. But they were given no medical treatment,” Ann recounts.

“At the time, Thais knew a little about AIDS, but those from Myanmar knew very little. All they knew was that you would contract it and die, so those with AIDS were reviled.”

Those without HIV/AIDS watched their friends, family members and neighbors die in the thousands. “I saw young men and women die [of AIDS] like leaves falling from trees,” said an 85-year-old farmer in Phayao. As a result, a large number of NGOs, both local and foreign, doctors, Thai and foreign government officials set up various schemes on health education, education provision, and intervention in child trafficking and tok keow practices.

Amidst this, Ladawan Wongsriwong – a Thai-lue woman from Phayao – rose to prominence as a TV anchorwoman. Her home district produced the largest number of AIDS patients among all Phayao districts. “I don’t want my province to be known as the supplier of young girls for prostitution,” she said in a public statement, “I want the girls from the north to enjoy a new image.”

In 1991, she was appointed government spokesperson – the first female spokesperson in Thai history – and used her position to make her case against child trafficking, establishing vocational schools in Phayao. When she went on to become an MP for the Democrat party and later the Thai Rak Thai / Pheu Thai party, she continued to raise funds and orient her parliamentary work around educating and empowering women in the North. By many accounts, her work was successful – by 1999, the rate of school attendance for girls in Phayao increased from 27% in 1980 to 98%.

But her biggest battle was with the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1960, which unfairly imposed heavier penalties on sex workers than the agents who lure or deceive girls into the industry. In 1996, the government approved a new anti-prostitution bill she sponsored, which imposes penalties on all those involved in sex work including customers, agents and the owners of sex establishments. However, some sex workers today protest the 1996 law and its uneven, often harmful implementation, as police officers continue to overlook the offenses of those who have power to pay them – once again leaving sex workers unfairly exposed to exploitation.

Aj. Sompop Jantraka and the Daughters Education Program (DEP)

Ajarn Sompop Jantraka founded DEP in 1989. “At the time I was doing research on children in sex work. So many of them said to me, we don’t want to go to work, we want to go to school. So, I used my own money from a researcher’s salary – 30,000 to 40,000 baht, to buy school uniforms and send these children I interviewed to school.”

A term he uses in his work is “children at risk.” “Adult sex workers who have been trafficked into the business were usually once children at risk – broken homes, family debts, parents who are stateless or homeless, these are all push factors.” 

He highlights the importance of separating out these children at risk from those who voluntarily become sex workers. But he believes that the ‘at risk’ push factors are similar. “When we go deep, we often find that they too were faced with at-risk situations. That’s why I wanted to start a prevention project.”

On legalizing sex work, he says: “That is only the system that cannot solve the root of the problem. When you fail in prevention or protection, that’s how you live with it.” The argument he makes – that prevention is more important than cure – is implicit in Ladawan’s own 1996 law, which draws on the “Nordic model” that aims to reduce overall sex work by punishing buyers, brothels and pimps rather than sex workers.

“After having talked to thousands of sex workers, I truly believe that if they were given the choice, they wouldn’t do this work. They say the same thing, that they wouldn’t want their children to come to the same place. Why can we accept it when it’s not our children?”

Research is mixed on the value of legalizing sex work – some studies have found that criminalization leads to more abuse of sex workers, other studies have not. Some research finds that legalizing selling, but not buying, sex leads to less street prostitution. Other research doesn’t.

What is clear is sex workers’ desire to seek protection from the law without fear of prosecution. The UN’s report on sex work in Asia Pacific cites a study that says “the overwhelming majority of interviewed want sex work to be legalized or decriminalized.” Criminalizing sex work in Thailand has left many sex workers out of the legal system – making them even more vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Tok Keow today

While the phenomenon of trafficking young northern Thai women into the sex trade has largely subsided, thanks to the critical work of people like Ladawan and Ajarn Somprop, a report shows that “the demand for victims of sex trafficking has not been addressed.”

“It hasn’t stopped – the search goes on for the easiest, cheapest source. Now, they start from very deep in Shan state, in areas where there are many conflicts, with many people still facing security threats,” Aj. Sompop explains.

In place of Thai women of the North, it is indigenous women from ethnic minorities or the women from Myanmar that have come to supply the brothels and entertainment parlors in Bangkok – the pilgrimage still southward, on a well-worn route. Research in Narathiwat and Songkhla show that trafficked sex workers are predominantly from the Tai Yai ethnic group, if not from Myanmar’s Shan state.

Aj. Sompop recalls, “A government official said to me, the child sex workers in the area are not Thai children. They are children from Shan state. It doesn’t matter.”

He doesn’t accept this line of thinking. “Prevention has to be cross-border. What Ann is doing, Help Without Frontiers, it’s important that it’s without frontiers. That has to be how our beliefs, our morals work.”

A 2008 Anti Trafficking in Persons Act was meant to address the issue of cross-border sex trafficking but EMPOWER has also expressed several concerns. The law authorizes “rescue” operations in which police can enter sex establishments without a warrant – but sex workers claim this has resulted in the arrest and deportation of women who enter the industry freely.

Conclusion

What surfaces from the history of tok keow and its living legacy is the difficulty of separating the problem of sex trafficking from voluntary sex work. In Ladawan’s work educating the girls of Phayao, she effectively brought child trafficking to a halt. Ajarn Somprop’s DEP program still does important work in preventing child trafficking in Mae Sai.

But that these efforts can bring sex work to a halt is uncertain. Demand continues to exist for sex work. For some women, this continues to be the best – rather than only – option.

The 1996 Anti-Prostitution law Ladawn sponsored, and the 2008 Anti-Trafficking law that followed, have made life difficult for voluntary sex workers. At the same time, it’s gone some distance in reducing the presence of agents in Phayao and other Northern provinces. In the late 1990s, these prevention efforts were responsible for saving many thousands of Northerners from the spread of HIV/AIDS.

A 2015 article on Dok Kham Tai shows just how far the district has come. “Dok Kham Tai is no longer synonymous with prostitutes,” the author – a Phayao native – writes, noting Ladawan’s invaluable influence on improving the region. The district now produces the best straw brooms in the country.

The spotlight has moved away from tok keow, but the problem of sex trafficking remains in Thailand. Thais pointing to the success of Dok Kham Tai turn a blind eye to the young Shan and ethnic minority women who have taken their place – women, girls who don’t even have the protection of the Thai state.

These are not our children, as the Thai government official would say. But they, too, deserve access to education, healthcare and legal protection. Let the traumatic memory of tok keow haunt us, as Susan Sontag would say, and galvanize us into action today to protect children who are not our own.

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