Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 26 January 2014

A "dancing show" at Thiri Mingalar market in Yangon. The feather boa denotes that the woman has been "auctioned" to someone - not necessarily for sex.

A “dancing show” at Thiri Mingalar market in Yangon. The feather boa denotes that the woman has been “auctioned” to someone – not necessarily for sex.

Harsh, outdated laws and police corruption are hindering efforts to safely regulate Myanmar’s commercial sex industry

As a cool breeze blows through the open windows of a ramshackle house that serves as a massage parlour on the outskirts of Bago, the shrill sound of a mobile phone pierces the silence during yet another power cut. The manager of the massage parlour listens anxiously for a few seconds, then hangs up and says, “We’ll stay open tonight.”

The manager had been contacted by someone working at a nearby brothel who told him there was no need to worry about a police raid – for that night anyway.

As a pimp at the massage parlour explained, “Police are on a drive to make as many arrests as possible – the drive to fill certain quotas starts in December every year and continues until the end of January. We often have to shut for the night, or even a few nights – it’s not easy doing good business at this time of year. If the problems last too long, we’ll move to another house.”

The penalties for commercial sex work in Myanmar are tough: the Suppression of Prostitution Act (1949), adapted from a colonial law, provides for a jail term of up to three years for sex workers and up to five years for pimps. Clients, however, are not prosecuted under the law.

As the pimp explained, the massage parlour is in regular contact with the brothel – as well as local police officers, who warn of a possible raid in exchange for “protection money”.

“We have problems when police from outside Bago, such as Yangon or Naypyitaw, turn up un-announced,” he said.

The manager has been to prison several times – mostly for sentences of about six months.

“Whoever is on reception [when the police arrive] will go to jail, along with the women working here,” he said.

Krittayawan Tina Boonto from UNAIDS, who conducted a legal review of the laws surrounding commercial sex work in Myanmar last year, said police harassment is a major issue among sex workers.

“Sex workers spoke repeatedly of harassment – for example, a policeman will use a person’s reputation as a sex worker to arrest her, even after she stops being a sex worker. To get out of it the woman has to pay a bribe, which can include providing sexual services to police.”

Unlike Vietnam, which recently abolished the practice of keeping women in detention centres before they are charged for commercial sex work, Myanmar has two female detention centres in Yangon, and one each in  Twante and Mandalay.

“It’s a cross between a jail and a rehab centre. They are horrific. Women are forced to sew clothes and what not, before they are told whether they’ll be charged. It’s not at all voluntary – the women cannot leave. It’s not a solution we encourage,” said Anne Lancelot, the director of the Targeted Outreach Programme at Population Services International.

“Vietnam is now considering other ways to prosecute sex work; rather than forcing women to stitch bed nets in the detention centres, the government is considering introducing fines,” said Eamonn Murphy, the country coordinator in Myanmar for UNAIDS.

Inconsistency in the law

“The laws are impractical and difficult to enforce and are applied with varying degrees of severity. Those who are most disadvantaged tend to be the hardest hit and that’s unfair,” said Sid Naing, country director of Marie Stopes International.


Kay Thi Win, policy officer for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and founder of the AMA Sex Workers Network in Myanmar, which provides support to women who have been imprisoned for sex work, said “Evidence has shown that criminal penalties surrounding sex work drive the industry underground. It is in these unsafe settings with no protection from the law that sex workers are vulnerable to violence.”

Government figures for 2012 say there are 60,000 commercial sex workers in Myanmar, with a HIV/AIDS infection rate of 7.1 percent, compared to a rate of 0.5 percent among the general population.

Health experts say that while HIV/AIDS prevalence is decreasing among this risk group, their efforts to further reduce the infection rate are hampered by the harsh penalties for sex work, which can be a deterrent to seek health services out of fear of prosecution.

“The laws have very negative consequences on controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic because sex workers don’t want to get tested. It’s an extra barrier,” Sid Naing said.
There are other laws that affect safe sex practices – not just among sex workers but the general population.

Police can prosecute anyone considered to be “loitering with intent to solicit” – as well “loitering after dark without adult supervision.”

“There can be situations where a police will say to a woman, “You have condoms in your purse and you have been standing at this bus station for two hours – so you are obviously loitering and soliciting,” said Ms Lancelot. “Some people joke that with all the power cuts in Myanmar, almost any time can mean ‘after dark,’” she said.

“It’s impacting youth terribly,” she added.

Not enough condoms

Until a directive was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2000, possessing a condom could be used as evidence of sex work.

However, UNAIDS says most people are unaware of the directive – and this includes members of the police, who continue to use possession of condoms as circumstantial evidence to make arrests at the street level.

“There is a need for more comprehensive police instruction that prohibits police from interfering with the right of all persons to carry condoms for HIV prevention or contraception,” said Mr Murphy.

Until the situation changes, condom sales in Myanmar are likely to remain dangerously low. The biggest seller of condoms in Myanmar is PSI; it sells Aphaw brand condoms at a subsidized price of between 20 percent and 50 percent of the retail value.

“We distribute condoms free to sex workers and men who have sex with men, because they are most at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,” Ms Lancelot said.

“PSI sells 20 million condoms in Myanmar each year but that’s not that much for a population of 60 million or so. I think we need to be selling five times as much,” she said.

“People should be encouraged to buy condoms, even if they don’t use them. In a lot of cases, the mindset of police is still ‘no sex before marriage and marriages should be faithful’ in terms of public health. But in reality this is not what happens – so we should go where the reality is,” said Mr Murphy.

Thuza Win, the founder of the Sex Workers in Myanmar network (SWIM), an advocacy group for commercial sex workers, told Mizzima Business Weekly said that although prostitution is also illegal in neighbouring Thailand, where the World Health Organization estimates there are more than 200,000 sex workers, less severe policing tactics make it easier to spread health and legal awareness messages.

“I visited HIV/AIDS projects in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Mae Sot and found that the sex industry is more regulated and that it’s easier to get condoms. It’s also easier to hold HIV/AIDS education sessions in Thailand, and to reach out to people with the disease,” said Ma Thuza Win.

“People in Thailand will admit they have HIV/AIDS, but in Myanmar, some prefer to die.”