The Irrawaddy

No Sex Please—We’re Burmese

As The Irrawaddy is celebrating its silver jubilee, we revisit some of our magazine stories published over 25 years. Here is a cover story about prostitution from 2001. 

Despite draconian laws and official denial, sex is big business in Burma. But brothel owners find it doesn’t pay to offend the morals of modest generals. Tin Nwe made a mistake—a big mistake.

As a well-known brothel owner in Rangoon, he wanted to seek the limelight. For that reason, last year he donated a large sum of money to the military government in Rangoon. Secretary One Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt received the donation and shook hands with Tin Nwe. Tin Nwe was as pleased as punch. He hung a huge picture of himself and Khin Nyunt in his hotel, which is known to be one of the top-class brothels in Rangoon.

But activists in and out of Burma were not so impressed by Tin Nwe’s daring PR stunt. They publicly ridiculed the regime for accepting money from a brothel owner, saying that it was a disgrace. As a result, in June last year Tin Nwe received some visitors in the form of a raid.

The brothel, known as the Nine Angels Inn, had been tacitly condoned by a number of policemen and local officials, who were then fired in the wake of the raid. The owner, Tin Nwe, and five of his accomplices were charged under the Prostitution Suppression Act and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Though not stated, it appears that Tin Nwe’s crime was not running a brothel but hanging a huge photograph of himself and Khin Nyunt on the wall.

Prostitution is illegal in Burma, but it is alive and kicking. Local police and officials benefit from the business and army officers are among the regular customers. The Nine Angels Inn had visitors from business circles as well as army and intelligence units.

Nevertheless, unlike Thailand, brothels are not too open. In a police state, opening a high-class brothel definitely needs an official blessing. Tin Nwe knew people in high places. He also provided his girls to some high-ranking officials, including army officers. Brothel owners in Rangoon know how to approach high-ranking officials. But they sometimes also get dragged into the internal conflicts of Burmese politics and suffer as a result.

In the early 1990s, the Lay Aye Thar hotel in downtown Rangoon was raided and owner Tin Maung Lwin was thrown into prison. Tin Maung Lwin was known to be “keeping high-ranking officials in his pocket.” He kept records, photos and lists of his customers, who included high-ranking officials and policemen.

Following his arrest and the closure of Lay Aye Thar, many local and township level police officers were either fired or transferred. Col Htin Kyaw, who was chief of a police department in Rangoon, was sentenced to seven years after officials found a photo of him and Tin Maung Lwin having dinner together. In fact, Htin Kyaw was receiving large sums of tea money from Lay Aye Thar. During the raid, some revealing photos of army officers and girls were discovered by authorities, a lawyer in Rangoon said.

Tin Maung Lwin was quite influential as he was well connected, thus the raid surprised many in Rangoon. The raid, according to Rangoon sources, coincided with a crisis within the ruling junta known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). “If one faction wants to destroy or blackmail its rival, they watch who is committing sins, who is involved,” said a veteran journalist in Rangoon.

In this manner, after raiding the Nine Angels Inn, the authorities tracked down the prostitution ring as well as the customers. But the investigation was abruptly stopped as they discovered that several high-ranking officials were Tin Nwe’s regular customers. Tin Nwe was known to provide “parcels” to some senior officials at the office of Rangoon’s Mayor.

In general, Burma is a conservative society and girls and women are shy to talk about sex and prostitution, while military leaders seem to be promoting traditional and family values. A few years ago, a top army leader came out in public saying “there is no sex industry in Burma” and lamenting that HIV/Aids was a disease created by foreigners.

However, in reality things are somewhat different, since prostitution in Burma is well rooted and flourishing. Though Tin Nwe is gone, the number of brothels is mushrooming in Rangoon. Soon after the raid, a regular customer to Nine Angels Inn complained, “We can no longer find [sex workers].” But that did not last long—as long as there is a demand, a supply will be found.

Because of the raid last year, smaller brothels and covert sex services are putting themselves in Tin Nwe’s shoes and making big profits. Some are quietly expanding and officials are turning a blind eye, and some untouchable figures are involved in this lucrative business.

The Nawarat Hotel and the Hotel Equatorial are known to have many beautiful girls. The hotel does not employ them, but the girls come in the late afternoon to hang around the bar and meet customers. “These girls are looking for guys,” said one tourist who visited the Hotel Equatorial last year. “If you don’t approach them, they will come to your table. After some small talk, one of the girls will just come straight out and say, ‘We can have sex if you want.’”

The Nawarat Hotel is run by Sandar Win, daughter of the “Old Man”—former dictator Gen Ne Win. The hotel used to provide a sex service for local and foreign customers, but now it simply allows freelancers to operate on the premises. It has also had some Thai sex workers.

Close relatives of generals also run several inns and motels in Rangoon’s Golden Valley, where rich and retired government officials live. In fact, “contemporary” (as opposed to traditional, or legitimate) massage parlors started to open in around 1995, when some ethnic ceasefire groups came down to Rangoon. The so-called “peace groups” have opened these businesses without any interference from officials. Girls from Shan State were recruited to work in these massage parlors.

“As long as you pay line jay you are safe,” said a Burmese businessman who is familiar with the situation. “Line jay” in Burmese means bribe money to do illegal business.

Recruiting girls is easy. Since countless young women cannot find jobs to earn a living, they become sex workers. Some university students are also involved in this business, providing sex services for tourists and wealthy businessmen, including foreigners.

What about ministers and army officers? Well, sex in high places is nothing new. Htun Kyi, a former trade minister, was known to have more than one secretary in his lavish office. Many businessmen who went to see the minister recalled seeing some strikingly beautiful girls sitting in the ministry office. Htun Kyi would say they were his secretaries, but in fact they were his mistresses/concubines. One trader who often visited Htun Kyi’s office saw his “secretaries” but said “They don’t seem to be too busy—they just sit around gossiping all the time.”

One Burmese businessman says he has to provide girls to army officers in order to gain business contracts and concessions. “Bribing money alone isn’t enough.” It seems that sex plays a major part in securing such contracts and concessions from officials.

Like it or not, the business is booming. In Tachilek, a well-known Burmese businessman, Myint Oo, also known as Moustache Myint Oo, has recently opened a massage parlor with the blessing of army officials.

On the opening day of the parlor, a Tachilek resident recalled the scene: “The parlor was packed with army officers” who were invited to attend the opening ceremony. Make no mistake: Sex is a hot commodity in Burma. But if you want to get rich selling it, don’t seek the limelight.