Meet The Thailand Prostitutes Working On Their Own Terms

Most of the many thousands of sex workers in Thailand walk the streets looking for clients. But one group of women wanted a safe home base, so they opened a bar where they can entertain clients.

Mai, Peung and Fah in front of their bar in Chiang Mai
Mai, Peung and Fah in front of their bar in Chiang Mai
Kannikar Petchkaew

CHIANG MAI â€" In red light districts across Thailand, sex workers gather on the streets every night looking for customers. The government estimates there are 77,000 prostitutes in the country, while NGOs say the figure is closer to 300,000, but both agree that sex trafficking is a significant problem.

Even though the industry is widespread, sex work is technically illegal in Thailand. One establishment â€" owned and run by women who work in the industry â€" is challenging the norm and trying to ensure they can practice their profession on their own terms.

It's Friday night here in a tiny bar in the red light district of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. The night is young, but the place is already crowded, with just one seat at the bar still free.

A group of women are hanging out at the bar, eating, gossiping and teasing each other. They could be students, colleagues or factory workers, but in fact they work in the sex industry and this is their bar.

In 2006, a group of about 30 such workers pooled their money to open this place, which they decided to call Can Do. Together they raised about $30,000 to start their business, a place they envisioned that sex workers could work, free from exploitation and abuse, where they could court clients safely.

It's the only bar in Thailand of its kind.

"Sawatdee ka, would you care for a drink or anything, sir?" asks Fah, who at 22, is the youngest sex worker here.

With her long black hair and broad smile, she's leaning over the bar offering a customer a drink. In jeans and a T-shirt, she looks like a college student, but she has been working in the industry for three years, starting right after high school.

Fah say she enjoys her job. "We work only at night, then we can go freely anywhere in the daytime," she says. "We can travel, and we can also learn languages from our foreign clients."

Good working conditions

Mai Janta, who is in her early thirties, is the manager of Can Do. She says the bar is unique because its workers are well paid and treated with respect.

"And we have certain working hours," she says, "We close at midnight. We can take drink fees, and when the bar earns more than 2,500 baht $69.50 each night, we get an additional 10% income. Any tips from customers go directly to each worker."

Unlike other bars in the red light district, there are no high-heeled boots or frilly skirts here â€" and no naked dancing. Women at Can Do wear whatever they want.

Around 50 women are registered to work at the bar, but they can also work elsewhere if they choose. Usually they make between $30 and $50 a night, much higher than many other places.

Fah and Peung are talking about a karaoke parlor they worked in several years ago. They say they were paid only $3 to $4 a night, and sometimes had to work until 6 o’clock in the morning.

Peung started in this line of work after she got divorced six years ago, and she is very frank about her profession. People who come to help sex workers always do so with their own agenda, she says, usually starting from the premise that the work choice is bad and the industry's workers are victims of poverty or trafficking.

But that isn't always true, she says. "Journalists love a story about policemen cracking down to help those women," she says. "That's a great story, and many people take great credit for it. But have you ever asked those women if they want to be helped?"

Fah, Peung and others have all worked in bars and brothels where their salaries were docked if they gained weight, didn't smile enough, or if the patrons didn't buy them enough drinks.

The best way to help, they say, is to decriminalize the trade so that women aren't subject to the whims of rapacious employers.

"We just want to be under and protected by the labor law, recognized as regular workers," she says. "What we need is only social security, salary, some days off and equal rights."

Despite the social criticism they face for working in a taboo industry, Fah says they just have to shrug when the neighbors gossip.

"I let them talk, but I don't take it into account because doing so would just be to let myself down," she says. "No one can let you down if you don't allow them to."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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