Kritaya Archavanitkul Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Emerging Issues in Human Rights in Southeast Asia: Conversation with demographer and human rights activist Kritaya Archavanitkul, 10/25/96 by Harry Kriesler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

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Sex Traffic

In your work in demography, you have been looking at migration, and that has led you to this second, very significant agenda which is looking at the traffic in and out of Thailand, and between Asian countries, of women and children for the sex industry. Tell us a little about your work in that area.

I work with the nongovernmental organizations on this topic of the trafficking in women and girls. I work with a foundation for women, and a task force to end child exploitation in Thailand. So what I can provide for them is the findings from my research. And one of my current research projects is on trafficking. Actually it is a large research project because it consists of nine research topics. One among them is trafficking. And to me I think this topic has clearly shown how the workers, how the women, have their rights violated. So I intend to choose this topic to discuss more in public, because I think this is the most important topic among the nine topics that I'm working on now.

Earlier, in your lecture at the Institute of International Studies, you read from many of the interviews that you've conducted with women who are victims of this trafficking. My sense is that your work as a demographer, combined with your heart, your soul, as you mentioned earlier, involves listening to the victims and telling their story through interviews. Is that a fair assessment?

I think that the information that we collect and find out is useful information. It is accurate and reliable information. This also depends on the methodology, the instruments that we use. We use both the quantitative and qualitative to collect these sorts of data. The presentation that I just did was mainly based on the qualitative part, but actually we have a quantitative part as well, to support it more in terms of the macro picture. So in this way, when we release our findings, I think it is more convincing to the people and the government. And I think it's the one way that may help to solve this problem. And also we have to accept that when we (not only myself alone) work as a team, sometimes we have to do the social welfare work. So what we have done is to send three girls back home. And we have one girl who is HIV infected. We took this girl out from the sex establishments and sent her to a refuge.

It's hard to capture the horror and degradation involved in this phenomenon, but we're talking about women and children, young girls, from Burma or China, taken or going abroad and becoming objects in a very exploitative and degrading sex industry. As a social scientist, what do you see as the main cause of this very horrifying phenomenon? Is the market creating it? Development and modernization leading to a breakdown in institutions? Tell us a little about what you see as the main causes.

I think that there are two main causes. One is a structural factor.

This is sad to say, that the Thai social structure tends to accept this sort of abuse, and not only to accept -- we have laws, we have bills that vitally support the existence of these sex establishments. That's one thing. And also, we have a Mafia that is also involved in the political parties, so this keeps the abuse going. The second reason is a cultural factor. I don't know about other countries, but in Thailand the sexual behavior of Thai men accepts prostitution. Every class of Thai men accept it, practice it. So they don't see it as a problem. So when it comes to the policymakers, who are mostly men, of course, they don't see this as a problem. They know there are many women who are brought into prostitution in Thailand. They know that some are treated with brutal violence. But they don't think it's a terrible picture. They think it's just the unlucky cases. And, because of the profit, I think there are many people with an interest involved, so they try to turn a blind eye to this problem.

So how do you change things? What are the most effective levers of power to make a difference, to turn the tide? If you can't put a complete stop to it, how can you at least affect its growth and hopefully work toward making it something less of a problem?

I want to reply to this question that we have to have a long-term and a short-term strategy.

For the long term, we need education reform and political reform. For the education reform, I think that gender sensitivity, gender equality is the main thing. We need to invest in our education. That's one thing. And for the political reform, because right now if you want to be a politician in Thailand, you have to use a lot of money. For one person to get one seat, you have to invest I think at least 10 or 20 million ba, I don't know how much in dollars, but I think in some provinces it's 100 million ba, so it's over a million dollars. So you have to buy votes from the people. This is why women like myself who may want to join a party do not have enough money to run the election. So we have to reform our political system to make it more open.

I think we have many ways to get this system reformed. I don't want to go into the details but we are trying to do it now, campaigning in Thailand now for political reform. If we get good politicians we hope that our social problems will be more easily solved, or get more attention from the government. For our short-term strategy, I think what we need is strength from the nongovernment (NGO) movement. We work locally at the provincial or district level to try to get the officials at that local area to listen to us. And also we work through the network with international organizations. In Thai society, we work in this way, and it's proved that we can solve some problems at a certain level. For example, with Thai prostitution, we once asked the Prime Minister of a town to sign a petition and post it in a newspaper that he himself wants to eradicate child prostitution in Thailand. And that helped. But what we have to do is take issue by issue to try to solve this problem.

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