Sex Sells in Burma’s Sin City

By Lawi Weng 2 September 2014

MONG LA, Special Region 4 — Nowhere in culturally conservative Burma is it easier to find sex than in Mong La, a Sino-Burmese border town with a reputation for the illicit. Dozens of prostitutes line two bridges in the center of town, scantily clad and freely distributing business cards that offer their bodies to passersby.

Potential customers pull up beside the women, and negotiations begin. Typically, these conversations take place in Chinese, the language used by most residents here. If a price is agreed to, it’s off to a room at one of a growing number of hotels in Mong La, part of an autonomous enclave in eastern Burma known as Special Region 4.

While the sex industry is legal and regulated in parts of the world as near as Thailand or far as the Netherlands, here it is an unregulated, unlawful and flourishing trade.

Along with gambling and animal trafficking, Mong La’s black market includes prostitutes, and it has sprung up to meet a demand that comes largely from China.

So too have many of the women selling sex.

While China is frequently the destination for Burmese victims of human trafficking, here in Mong La some Chinese sex workers have fallen prey to trafficking in the other direction. A 2008 earthquake in Sichuan provided a major source of sex workers, according to an ethnic Shan woman who deals gold in Mong La. Much like Cyclone Nargis forced many Burmese into the sex trade, the devastation wrought by the Sichuan quake left women there vulnerable to exploitation.

Lured by promises of jobs in Mong La, women were trafficked across the porous border by Chinese businessmen.

“For a month, they did not put those girls to work. They let them stay at beauty salons, beautified them … and finally they agreed to work as sex workers,” the local Shan woman said.

Just as they tolerate a steady stream of illegal Chinese entrants daily, local authorities appear unconcerned that these women, here without visas, are selling sex.

“They sell sex in public, but there is no problem for them. There is no action taken. They are free even though they are illegally staying here,” said Min Thu, a Mong La resident.

A representative for the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), which governs Special Region 4, declined The Irrawaddy’s interview request.

Business cards offering photos and phone numbers are also slipped underneath hotel room doors. Some hotels are said to take money from women or their pimps to display photos of sex workers, and a phone number to call, in rooms where hoteliers elsewhere might hang a perfunctory scenic painting.

While most of the prostitutes are Chinese, the town does have at least one brothel offering Burmese women. More discreetly than the women on the bridges, a dozen or so Burmese wait for customers inside a shop advertising “cold drinks” on a sign outside. They too find themselves servicing a largely Chinese clientele, and communication can be difficult—even negotiating a price sometimes ends in frustrated failure—but the trade is lucrative, one woman told The Irrawaddy.

Most of the women said that they came from Rangoon, where they would not be able to earn as much money. Ma Khine, a Burmese sex worker, said that women in her industry could earn between 2,500 yuan (US$407) and 4,000 yuan per month in Mong La.

“I just arrived here two months ago,” said Ma Khine, who came from Burma’s biggest city. “We can earn more money here than in Rangoon.”