Burmese migrants from Shan State make up more than half of all young male sex workers in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, according to research released by non-governmental organizations on Thursday.
The study interviewed 50 young males working at massage parlors and bars in three areas of Chiang Mai — Santitam, Night Bazaar and Chiang Mai Land.
“Most of these people recently arrived from Burma. They understand the language, as they are from cross-border areas,” researcher Jarett Davis told The Irrawaddy. “Some of them speak Thai as a second language.”
He said many Burmese migrants originally came from poor villages in Shan State, while there were also some sex workers who are ethnic Chin and Karen. Among the Thai respondents, there were many ethnic minorities, such as highland tribes Lisu, Lahu and Akha, and sex workers from Thailand’s impoverished Isaan region, Davis added.
About 90 percent of the interviewees were youths, aged between 14 and 24, according to the report by Urban Light and Love146, two NGOs that aim to end sexual exploitation and child trafficking. Many of them had fallen victim to trafficking and exploitation during their migration to Chiang Mai, and most stayed in the country illegally as they were unable to obtain proper legal documentation, the report said.
The US-founded Urban Light runs a drop-in center for vulnerable boys in Chiang Mai, where it provides English-language lessons and vocational skills training in order to offer the youths a way out of the sex industry. Love146 works on similar programs in several Asian countries, such as India, Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
The researchers believe most male sex workers began working when they were under 18 years of age, although the boys took care to hide this fact.
“In the bar, we think, [bar owners] tell the boys to not say they are under 18. So they tell us they are over 18,” said Glenn Miles, director of the Love146’s Asia Division.
He added that it was hard to provide an accurate estimate of the total number of young male sex workers active in Chiang Mai as the practice happens behind closed doors, most often in male massage parlors.
Since the early 2000s, there has been an influx of ethnic Shan youths coming to Chiang Mai in search of a job. Some of these impoverished, heterosexual boys become male sex workers as “a last option” to gain income, the report said, adding that “commercial sexual experiences and income vary” among the youths.
The study found that many young male sex-workers are ashamed of their work and suffer from very low self-esteem. Few, however, can leave the sex industry as their impoverished families back home rely on their earnings.
The youths, in particular so-called ‘freelance sex workers’, are also at considerable risk of contracting HIV as some engage in unprotected sex with customers, according to Davis. He added that the research did not include HIV/AIDS testing among the respondents.
The NGOs recommend carrying out further research into the exploitation and trafficking of young male sex workers and to provide further assistance to these vulnerable groups.