Not the Same Old Song and Dance

By Seamus Martov 5 July 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A musical centered on the life of a fictional refugee from Myanmar appears at first glance an unlikely venue for a detailed critique of US anti-trafficking policies and their impact on the women they were ostensibly designed to protect. But “Land of Smiles,” which had its Asian premiere in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai with a cast that included several off-Broadway veterans, is not your typical musical with a message.

The play’s dual protagonists are both newcomers to Thailand. Lipoh is a young Kachin woman who has fled fighting in Myanmar’s northernmost state, and Emma is an idealistic American law-school graduate who has come to Asia to join the global fight against human trafficking.

Early on in the play, Lipoh’s stint working at a Chiang Rai brothel ends when she is detained by police working in cooperation with the Western-funded NGO where Emma has just started her internship. Emma’s superior at the NGO, a fellow American, assigns Emma the task of coaxing Lipoh, who is being incarcerated in a grim immigration detention center supposedly for her own protection, to testify against the brothel owner and her friends who helped her get to Thailand. But Lipoh refuses to play along. “Because I am not a victim,” she tells Emma.

As the play unfolds, Emma begins to question her NGO colleagues’ efforts to compel Lipoh to accept the role of victim and use her case to get more funding for their organization. “Back in Indiana / Life is black and white / Nothing is too dark / Nothing’s too bright / It’s easy to distinguish wrong from right,” Emma sings after coming to the realization that things aren’t so clear-cut in Thailand.

“Land of Smiles” was written and produced by Erin Kamler, a Los Angeles-based playwright, composer and PhD candidate. The play—which will be staged in Los Angeles this month and then at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August after having its debut in Chiang Mai last December—is the product of more than 50 interviews and hours of field work conducted by Ms. Kamler in Thailand and Cambodia.

“The primary agenda for the play is to show the more complex reality of the anti-trafficking movement and how it affects migrant women on the ground in Thailand, particularly migrant women from [Myanmar],” she told The Irrawaddy.

“The big problem with the movement, the elephant in the room, is that [it doesn’t really address] structural conditions that push both trafficking—that is, labor exploitation, actual human trafficking—and migration that is consensual. And there’s no real distinction between those two things, either,” explained Ms. Kamler, whose play is an extension of her nearly completed PhD work on these issues at the University of Southern California.

The trafficking and smuggling of people across international borders has in recent years become a high-profile issue across the globe. In the post-9/11 era, many increasingly security-conscious Western governments have taken a tough stand on such practices, with the effect that many portrayed as victims of traffickers are also suffering at the hands of law enforcement agencies.

“There’s very little nuance in these policies that are supposedly meant to address trafficking,” said Ms. Kamler, who is part of a growing chorus of researchers and migration experts calling for a radical shift in policy away from the militarized war on trafficking currently being carried out by most Western governments and their respective international development funding agencies.

Ms. Kamler also takes issue with a longstanding US policy, only recently overturned, to deny funding to anti-trafficking and migrant support organizations unless they adhere to a zero-tolerance policy for prostitution—a policy that encouraged NGOs in Thailand and Cambodia to take part in raids to “save” sex workers, regardless of whether the women were engaged in such work of their own free will.

“The critique is that most of the policies and most of the funding that goes into the movement to stop trafficking happens at the end, after people have migrated and, in the case of sex workers, after they’ve already been working as sex workers. Then these well-funded NGOs will go in with the police and round all these women up,” explained Ms. Kamler.

In many ways, “Land of Smiles” offers a musical counterpoint to the kind of campaign conducted by the likes of MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking), a “multimedia initiative” that seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking through activities such as organizing a December 2012 concert in Yangon featuring musician Jason Mraz. That concert—during which Mr. Mraz wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Slavery Sucks” as he performed before 50,000 screaming fans on a stage in front of Shwedagon Pagoda—was part of a slick campaign that frequently reduces the trafficking issue to a black-and-white struggle between good and evil.

There’s little space in the MTV EXIT narrative for the kind of nuance conveyed in Ms. Kamler’s play, in which the Lipoh character—like tens of thousands of other refugees and migrants from Myanmar—has deliberately chosen to be smuggled into Thailand in order to support her family.

Estimates from researchers indicate that the regular flow of large numbers of people out of Myanmar has not been reduced by the current government’s reform process. This may be due to the fact that the last few years have been marked by a significant increase in land-grabbing and the displacement of huge numbers of small-scale farmers across much of Myanmar’s countryside—factors that continue to push thousands of migrants out of the country every month in search of employment.

There are also other push factors at play. The unresolved conflict between government troops and Kachin rebels in the north and the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State have, according to UN estimates, led to a combined figure of more than 250,000 people being displaced since President U Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took office three years ago.

These factors have left no shortage of people willing to pay brokers to smuggle them to third countries in search of a better life, ensuring that Thailand’s immigration detention centers will remain full of undocumented people for many years to come.

“Land of Smiles” is a beautifully composed and highly creative rebuttal to the widely held assumptions that underpin anti-trafficking policies that have proven to be at best counterproductive and at worst extremely harmful to the very people they are meant to help. By looking at what’s wrong with the status quo in a way that is both challenging and highly entertaining, it could do much to highlight the many missteps that have been taken in the name of ending human trafficking.

This article first appeared in the July 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.