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A raid on a massage parlour in Thailand unveils what’s wrong with the country

Last week, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, police and soldiers raided a massage parlour in Bangkok called Victoria’s Secret to rescue victims of alleged human trafficking and the sex trade.

Some of the 113 women who worked at Victoria's Secret massage parlour being led away by the authorities.  Photo: Bangkok Post

Some of the 113 women who worked at Victoria's Secret massage parlour being led away by the authorities. Photo: Bangkok Post

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Last week, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, police and soldiers raided a massage parlour in Bangkok called Victoria’s Secret to rescue victims of alleged human trafficking and the sex trade.

The officers found 113 women allegedly working as sex workers at the parlour. (Some are under 18 and alleged victims of human trafficking. The 113 include Thais as well as women from other countries such as Myanmar, Laos and China.)

The police also found a list of “special guests”, among them officials from the Royal Thai Police and Revenue Department who allegedly received discounted or free services.

This may not be a complete surprise but it is by all means embarrassing and has laid bare the failure of the military regime’s anti-corruption and reform attempts.

The list included officers from virtually every department at the Wang Thonglang police station near where the parlour is located, from patrolmen to investigators and a superintendent.

Other bureaus in the police force were also registered on the “secret” guest list; including crime suppression, metropolitan, immigration and, ironically enough considering the charges that followed the raid, human trafficking police.

An element of surprise might be found this time as Revenue Department officials also appeared on the massage parlour’s list as being among its “sponsored” patrons.

But other than this, nothing really sets off public alarm here. It is not the first time such a list has been found. And Victoria’s Secret will not be the last place where bribery and corruption among Thai state officials turns up.

What followed the raid and the media’s disclosure of the list is also familiar. After the raid, five senior police officers from Wang Thonglang police station were transferred to inactive posts pending a probe.

Will we ever hear about the probe’s result? Or what measures will be put into place to prevent such a corrupt practice from recurring? Probably not.

If the country is in the middle of reform, the police department included, and we have this news about human trafficking police allegedly receiving freebies from a business accused of engaging in human trafficking and the sex trade, do we dare keep hopes up for results?

Another irony in the Victoria’s Secret case is that some people seemed surprised that sex workers were involved in the massage parlour business.

But then again, the biggest irony in this case is the fact that prostitution is illegal in Thailand, criminalised by the Prostitution Prevention and Suppression Act 1996.

Yet the country has been described as an “international sex tourism destination’’ with more than 200,000 estimated to be in the profession.

So we have no brothels but go-go bars, karaoke rooms, or massage parlours which everyone knows serve the purpose. Is it beyond the imagination that the grey area is a fertile ground for abuses by officials -- bribery and extortion -- to grow?

Rights groups have advocated the legalisation of prostitution to regulate the business and extend rights to sex workers, but they are up against a wall of morality.

Is it a surprise that this is where we end up? As a country where prostitution is technically illegal but with a sex trade that is estimated to be worth billions? Is it shocking we have a place like Victoria’s Secret where massage services, and more, may be provided and where bribes must be paid to secure protection?

Are these illegal but tolerated sex services and proliferation of corruption major and complex problems? Of course they are. Do they require reform on several fronts to correct?

Definitely. But then again, the problems which the Victoria’s Secret raid has raised are not that different from others we are facing in society.

Take the case of a woman arrested after a call centre gang allegedly used her lost ID card to open fake bank accounts. The Thai ID card is supposed to be a smart one but it is obviously not linked to any databases, definitely not with commercial banks.

Or the ongoing problem of taxi drivers who refuse to pick up passengers. Have the authorities done anything to improve the situation? Not really.

So where is the reform that the military regime promised?

It’s nowhere to be seen because the top brass with their boundless wisdom banked on public officials spearheading the revolution.

But just like we know what is inside a massage parlour, we also know that insiders do not make effective agents of change.

So here we are, after more than three years of reform attempts, stuck with yet another list of officials who allegedly received freebies from an entertainment venue.

There is certainly no progress on much-needed police reform. More challenging issues, be they education, health care or inequalities, will have to wait. BANGKOK POST

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist at Bangkok Post.

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