Rangoon’s Sex Workers Face Unscrupulous Police Force

By Sanay Lin 7 November 2013

A man steps out of a taxi and starts chatting to another man standing in front of DJ, a night club in Rangoon’s Tamwe Plaza. Moments later, a 20-year-old woman emerges from the club.

“Here she is, brother. She is ok for everything,” says the second man, who is acting as a pimp for sex workers based at the club. “You can sleep with her till dawn. You can talk to each other to make a deal. We do not want to take bribes, but it is important for you to be ok.”

A deal is reached and the taxi pulls away with Chue Chue and her client inside.

Prostitution is illegal in Burma and there are no licensed brothels. But women can be procured for sex at clubs like DJ, or simply by calling the correct pimp.

The trade’s illegality puts Rangoon’s sex workers, like Chue Chue, at risk of arrest. Women who work as prostitutes and campaigners say Rangoon’s police regularly extort money from sex workers for “protection,” or arbitrarily arrest them to bolster police crime statistics.

Chue Chue, which is not her real name, charges men 20,000 kyat, or about US$20, to spend the night with her at a guesthouse or a hotel. She told The Irrawaddy that she works as a sex worker, without the knowledge of her husband, to provide for her family.

Chue Chue’s nightly fee of about $20 compares with the standard $25 and $37 per month that a garment worker—her previous job—makes in Rangoon, according to a survey published last week.

Chue Chue was first persuaded by a friend to take a job as a masseuse instead of at a factory. After four months, her boyfriend asked her to stop. She agreed and they were married.

But since her new husband works as a garment worker, his wage is not sufficient to make ends meet, so Chue Chue sneaks out while he is working to have sex for money.

Chue Chue said working out of a club like DJ provides some protection from the police.

“Here they have good security and I do not have to worry about the authorities coming to arrest us,” she said. “When we hear there will be a crackdown, the club closes completely. They have an inside contact with the authorities who lets them know before a crackdown.”

Sint Sint, another sex worker in Tamwe Township, said another way women deal with the police is by agreeing with officers which sex worker will be arrested each night. Arresting one prearranged woman a night, using a rotation system, makes it appear the police are doing their job, she said.

“Once, one man brought me to a guesthouse room in Tamwe Plaza,” she recounted. “He wanted me to perform abnormal sex acts, which I refused to do. Then, he threatened to call the police. For me, it was funny because we were already in contact with the police about who would be arrested that night, and it wasn’t me.”

Hnim Hnim, chairwoman of the Taw Win Khaya Network, an organization that tries to help sex workers in Burma, said it was common for police to use sex workers, who can easily be located and arrested, to improve their crime figures.

“The police have a duty to report how many crimes they have discovered each month. It is easy for them to arrest these sex workers using the law,” she said, adding that in the final two months of the calendar year, more sex workers are arrested as police try to improve their yearly figures.

Hnim Hnim said sex workers in Burma, most of who are trying to earn money to support their families, were forced to deal with an unscrupulous police force, criminalized and receive little support.

Another way sex workers are procured in Rangoon is by phone, which minimizes the risk of encountering the police.

“You can call my phone and tell me the age [sex worker] you need,” said a taxi driver from South Okkapala Township, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I will bring the girl to your hotel, but if you do not like her, you have to give me a fee for the taxi.”

The taxi driver and pimp insisted he was not exploiting the women. “They even give me some money sometimes, depending on their situation,” he said.