After a four hour drive through the cool emerald landscape of the Northern Thai mountains, we arrive at our destination. As we approach the village, signs of new roofing become more apparent. Gone are the rusting corrugated metal and thatch roofs; tile shingles are now hung for the rainy season. Small bamboo huts are stunted by large houses topped with shiny satellite dishes, orange groves grow where opium once flourished. The poppies aren’t gone, just strategically replanted two kilometers away. The oft-repeated claim that “our village no longer grows opium except for community purposes and medicine” sounds like a rehearsed script for DEA agents; the demand for the major cash crop is fading, but present.
The line between those who have and those who have-not is ever clearer. While the new money in the village hails from a variety of sources, human trafficking is one of the easiest ways to earn income. In this village, populated by a Thai-Chinese Hill Tribe, there are those who stay and those who leave; many go willingly, others – mostly those under the age of 16 – are forced. The routes may vary, but most will end up factories or brothels in Taiwan, in Northern Thai cities, or the islands of Southern Thailand. When we pull up the driveway to one of the larger houses in the village, Khun Nam waits to meet us.
Khun Nam is the headman of the village. His house is large with peach walls and a red roof, a full kitchen and giant wood furniture. The house competes with a relatives’ mini mansion a few yards away, another house of equal grandeur but without real furniture inside. New roofs and large houses are the main signifier that someone is working abroad, typically involved in some stage of the sale of humans. Khun Nam’s daughter plays in the driveway, her matted bangs dancing across her face as she runs, chasing chickens and watching us closely. She is an insider looking at the strangers on her playground.
Greeted with Thai hospitality, we enjoy a feast of food native to the village. Over a bounty of morning glory, fried pork, and bamboo worms, we start talking of our homelands and our interest in coffee production and agriculture (our cover for our true aim of understanding the village’s place in the human trafficking industry). Khun Nam is like a Thai Elmer Fudd, short and bald with high voice and birdy eyes. He is shy at first, and does not know exactly why we came to the village except that we want to learn. He looks at us curious, unable to decode what we are saying in English. He is afraid we are judging his ways, but like most hosts, is happy when we eat everything and speak Thai when we can.
We talk of the difference between America and Thailand and continue to compliment the food, eating until we are stuffed. When we cannot find room to consume another airy bamboo worm, Khun Nam brings out Korean Ginseng whiskey, his prized possession. Every time we go to the village he shows us this giant vat, and we remark on how interesting it is, how good it is for virility. In reality, this whisky is a fear-inducing brew with an intestinal root the size of a fern. In Thai villages, men and women don’t often drink together, but because we are foreigners, he is curious and amused by the experience. His wife watches from the kitchen. And so today Khun Nam pours several shots for us.
As the whiskey and Singha beer begin flowing, we all start to loosen up. This is an optimal time for questions. Khun Nam tells us about trafficking in the village in vague terms, he uses the words “going to work” and “being trafficked” interchangeably. Trafficking is not always seen as a negative thing in the village, it is seen as profitable, a way to make a living. Many adults are, in fact, self-trafficked. They choose to go to work abroad or in the village because of economics, or simply because they want to get out of dodge. These individuals know their destination, and rarely is deception involved; they may even pay a middle man to get them set up with a job and place to live. Those who are forced are often children and have no idea where they are going and what sort of work they will be doing. Often times, these children wind up at a work site or a brothel, their fate sealed in sex work or labor.
We eat and drink as if we are family, and yet the realities of what goes on in this village lurk in the back of my mind.
Noi is a nine year old with a shy smile and curious, mousey eyes. She is one of the smallest at the shelter, and as the little sister, she is eager for attention. Measuring less than four feet, Noi is far too small for her age. When Mickey Choothesa, a photographer and Founder of the Children’s Organization of South East Asia (COSA) discovered her story, Noi was not attending a school, she was building one. Noi’s family was so poor, she was forced into labor, laying bricks for a new school in a nearby village twelve hours a day.
Aom is a petite and exuberant thirteen year old. She was raped repeatedly by her uncle inside her own home. Breaking free from Thai cultural paradigms, she found the courage to run away and escape the abuse.
Choothesa and, his wife, Anna, provide a safe haven for these girls, a shelter like no other anti-trafficking initiative in Thailand. Together, they founded and organized COSA, a shelter for formerly trafficked or at risk girls. The couples’ commitment to combat human trafficking is two-fold; focusing on prevention and rehabilitation. COSA houses fifteen girls while creating a safe space to provide strength, education, and a loving place for the girls to grow, far from fear and abuse.
The girls’ stories are commonplace throughout Southeast Asia, and echo the accounts we expect to hear when discussing human trafficking. The trope of human trafficking often takes the form of victimized children who were deceived, manipulated or coerced into prostitution and forced labor. Despite this truth, there are multiple layers to the trafficking discourse that often go unspoken. Knowing the girls and their stories, it is always difficult to talk about trafficking objectively. There is a clear factor of human exploitation. And yet, sitting around the table with Khun Nam, we talk about it matter-of-factly, almost with a tone of ambivalence – this is simply the way.
In this village, humans are sold for 600 US dollars or less. For a virgin girl the price is double; these girls are often sold to brothels, which place a high value on virginity. Families are traffickers, and they are looked upon highly because of the money they gain. Families don’t sell their daughters so they can have food or basic necessity, they sell a child to purchase a new pick up truck or satellite dish.
On our first visits, colleagues would grumble about our association with Khun Nam. “How can we even look at him, what is he going to do, sell his other little kid?” It is difficult to find traffickers likeable, hard to break the link between morality and being a polite person. . We know he is involved in illicit trading, and his relative in the giant house next door has indeed sold his children. Yet, we sit there and listen to the history of the village, hoping for deeper context in the story. The liquor appears as infinite as the complexity of trafficking. Khun Nam pours more home-brew whiskey with every sip we take.
Khun Nam, ready for regional politics, knows he is doing something positive for his village by offering his child to the COSA. When we talk about how well his daughter is learning math and science, finding a role as a mentor for the other girls, Khun Nam lights up. He admits that he has only had limited education, and is happy his daughter has this opportunity. He is proud of his daughter for excelling in mathematics and wants to set an example for the village. But for the fifteen girls that COSA shelters, there are nearly 150 girls at risk on a waiting list.
Culture is a huge factor in trafficking. There is a sense of familial duty for young people, and often they do not question the choices of their elders, making trafficking accepted and systematic. For this reason, the girls do not always see themselves as victims. Rather, they are fulfilling a duty, even if they don’t always like what they do. There is common culture of victimization in the villages, in that girls are expected to be used for trade and for sex. Girls who are sold into the sex trade have already been abused by family members, or traded within the community. It’s not so much out of poverty or lack of knowledge that drives families and girls to become victims of human trafficking, but instead the push factors of materialism, social status, and a severe lack of value on the rights of the child.
For the older girls, many go into trafficking willingly. They see the respect that comes with financial gain and they sincerely want to help their family. They see that there is no easier way for their families to afford a pickup truck or a new roof. When families see other girls coming back to the village, building these huge houses with satellite TV’s and three stories, they are willing to sacrifice themselves or other family members. The big houses, the nicest ones, are those of sex workers, or those who are working and send money home to the family. In a land of no opportunity, new roofs and satellite dishes make trafficking appealing with the allure of quick money and class mobility.
Family is integral to Hill Tribe life. Rather than take the daughters away for good and rip that family and cultural bond apart, COSA lets the girls visit their families, and also let the families are welcome to come to the shelter to observe the girls progress. This enhances the dynamic of trust, but it also allows the villagers to see how education is far more beneficial than trafficking.
In red light districts, its hard to discern who is trafficked and who is their by choice. The girls who are working share their sad story with an international aid worker or missionary and welcome the opportunity for education and scholarships. These efforts, while important, do not necessarily combat trafficking, and are often too little too late. The girls who need the intervention of these organizations most urgently, are those who are chained up in Malaysia or some dodgy Cambodian brothel, the girls stuck in a Hill Tribe whiskey bar serving locals guys. Few NGOs have wandered out far enough, learned the language enough, sought out different ways of outreach. As a result, those girls who desperately need a way out of their situation remain unseen, unable to access the very aid that was meant for them.
What a movement towards an end to human trafficking requires – and specifically towards an end to the plight of these young girls and their futures as Thailand’s women – is not always aid, but education, on both a local and global level. In these villages, education, resources and leadership are integral for young girls, and their families– to tell them that things could be different.
While villagers may be taught that education is more sustainable then trafficking, global civil society and aid workers also need to be aware of the economics of trafficking, the unique cultural framework in which trafficking takes place, and how the line between choice, and force is often blurred.
Over the final round of whiskey, Khun Nam stopped for a moment and looked at us past the superficial “are you having fun?” inquiry that is so common in Thai hospitality.
In Thai, he says, “Please don’t judge our culture, this is just our way.”
Quiet. We looked down at our glasses and let the silence of true judgment pass before our next round.