Sex Workers, the Southern Border Provinces, and Living with Rules They Did Not Write

"...Each of us knows where the lines are drawn, where we cannot step over, where we can move the line a little, and where we can cross without care. It is only the journey of life in which each draws their own legal, health, traditional, community and social lines, even when facing God."

Since 2004, when another round of unrest flared up in the southern border areas, there have been 2 bombing incidents in Betong District, Yala Province.  Quantitatively, this figure is incomparable to other areas.  In each case, normality returned soon after the chaos, as if Betong was totally separated from the three southern border provinces.  People here believe this is due to the fact that there is only one way in or out of the district, so anyone coming in to cause harm could find themselves trapped in the area.

Nonetheless, as Betong is a border town, as are Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, this area possesses distinct characteristics not found in other border areas.

“Borders” are more than pseudo lines

For outsiders, the three provinces constitute the border area, and by common sense this is the area bordering a neighbouring country.  This view is not incorrect, but looking beyond the physical characteristics and the line drawn in the air, there are more to the border areas than that.

Sopee Untaya of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mahasarakham University, described the border areas in the Journal of Mekong Societies, Vol. 10, No. 3, September-December 2014, as follows.

“Border areas constitute a space where we can see not only state power and its limits, but also relationships, conflicts and facilitations as the space contains a multitude of cultural activities carried out by many people whose history involves cross-nation-state migration and displacement.  Border areas are interim spaces in which there are no fixed dividing lines in the cultural, political and economic dimensions for people, objects or thoughts to cross back and forth.  However, borders, no matter where, are often subject to being moved, erased and redrawn depending on the relationships among groups of people in certain places and at certain time.  Thus the meaning of border areas varies and can fall into several categories, not succinctly differentiated, but overlapping; it possesses fluidity in accordance with time, power and societal contexts, and with the movements of people involved in the struggle to bargain for power in the various activities in the livelihoods of their communities.”  

With such characteristics, Phrae Sirisakdamkoeng, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Archaeology, Silpakorn University, explained that the prominent feature of border areas is the existence of many overlapping rules and requirements; they are grey areas with cross-overs between strictness and non-strictness.

Anusorn Unno, Dean of the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University, explained that the overlapping parts lead to greater variety and fluidity of people’s identities.  When you are on one side, you may identify with that side, but when you are on the other, you may switch to another identity since there are two states involved.  Moreover, because the status of the three Southern border provinces is not yet recognized by all parties like other border areas, the people living in these border areas possess the cultural skills for survival amidst complex overlapping rules.

Learning the cultural rules and skills to build bargaining power

City of Betong

What drives the economy in the 78 sq km Betong Municipality is the tourism industry, or more specifically the sex industry.  Women who came to work as sex workers in the Betong and Yala areas inevitably need to find ways to build their bargaining power, cultural skills, and to learn complex rules in order to survive.
In her study on ‘Establishing Power by Female Sex workers in Betong Town, Yala Province’, Journal of Social Development, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2018, Surang Artnarong estimated that at least 3,000-5,000 sex workers conduct their trade there.  Most of the tourists are Malaysian (with Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnicity) and the total figure for foreigners arriving there in 2014 was 466,913, generating 2,130.74 million baht in income for the area, while the 122,740 Thai tourists generated only 388.95 million Baht. 

A survey in the Betong municipality conducted by Betong Hospital in 2018 found 72 sex service establishments with 85 male staff, including only one that was a sex worker, and 593 female staff including 194 sex workers.

None of these are accurate figures because prostitution is still illegal.  The only reliable fact is that sex work exists there, and it can be divided into 2 broad categories.  In the first, the sex workers have no bargaining power, and in the second, they can choose which customers they want to go with.

The first type is called Ban Buk, a polite term for brothel.
Noei (alias), whose past on this road has been swift, told me about it.  Since it is a brothel, the workers are treated only as commodities; no Thai customers are served here.  The second type are usually camouflaged as pubs, karaoke bars, even massage parlours.  Customers can take the workers out if they negotiate successfully, and certainly the workers have to hand in a portion of their pay to the owners of the business.

Nonetheless, the findings of the ‘Establishing Power by Female Sex-workers in Betong Town, Yala Province’ study tells us that sex workers are not totally powerless.  They build relationships with other groups in Ban Buk and use them as leverage for additional bargaining power.  Those with pretty faces can acquire regular customers, forcing the brothel owners to grant them privileges and enabling the workers to select only the customers they are satisfied with, as well as to determine the rates and types of service.

Living with the Betong rules

Grandview road, Betong

“Mostly, brothels in Betong do not accept Thai clientèle as a rule.  And associating with Thais is prohibited.  But karaoke bars do cater to Thais because they are under a different registration.  Brothels have to pay more, while it is cheaper for Karaoke bars which only pay the alcohol excise tax.  Brothels have to register their workers with the police and if they leave the business they can only come back to it until after 6 months, otherwise they have to pay tea money.  These are the Betong rules.”, Noei recounted from her experience in the occupation.

She has prowled Grand View Street since 15 years ago when she first arrived in Betong.  The street is well known to Betong people and sex customers; if you want to pick up someone to sleep with, here is where you come.  It is a short street winding its way through small alleys lined with pubs, bars, karaoke places, and Ban Buk.  The colourful neon lights work overtime, studiously shining and accentuating the faces and flesh complexion of the groups of night butterflies.  All the women on Grand View Street may have dreams beyond this place, only they have not yet arrived.

“The Betong rules require a tea money payment to the establishment if you want to leave it.  If you don’t, once out you cannot get back into Betong.  The rate will depend on how popular you are.  The more popular, the higher rate.  I estimated that as a lively, spirited type, my ransom would be thirty thousand.  I told the business owner to demand fifty thousand and I would pocket the extra twenty thousand myself.  But the worst case was when a girl ran away, the owner went after her to bring her back and she was locked up afterwards.”, Noei added, referring to the time in her life when a Malaysian man wanted to redeem her.

Apart from having to live with the various rules of the border areas, another factor affecting the sex workers’ livelihoods is the Southern border unrest.  Fortunately for them, Betong is not a target of the perpetrators and there have been very few incidents there.  The two bombings, however, each depressed the tourism business for about a week afterwards, and the sex workers without patrons or regular clients did struggle during these periods.  The situation soon returned to normal, however.

Living with ‘Mo’s’ rules

On leaving Betong for Yala town, I had a chance to talk to a ‘Mo’.  This is not a name of a person, but of an occupation, short for ‘modelling’.  This Mo explained to me that her work involved recruiting young women for events emceeing, posing as pretties, selling concert tickets, as well as sitting down to drink with clients.  That is as far as their job goes.  If any woman wanted to go with any of the clients, it would be their personal choice; the Mo would not be involved and no deductions are made.

As the Mo has to look after dozens of young women, I asked her what she would do if they go off with clients and the clients are not satisfied.

“It’s very difficult to say, but in such a case, I would have already told them that I have nothing to do with this.  If anything happens, they should call me immediately; this is because some of them are travelling workers, not locals.  Some have told me, some did not dare to.  If they do, I can help look after them even though I don’t get any commission because they are here under my line of work.  If they want to go, they can call me wherever they are if need be.  I keep the sound on all the time.  They can point to me who they want to go with.  If the person would not name the place, saying he would fetch the girl himself, I would not allow the girl to go.  I help scan all the work for them.”

Leaving aside the special service and going back to the young women’s regular work, events-based work is not complicated, unlike work as a drinking companion.  Salaried people receive their pay monthly at a specified time, but drinking companions are paid by ‘track’, each lasts 10-15 days.  For example, ABC business requires 4 drinking companions per track and a Mo will supply them.  Within this period, each worker has to sell up to the specified target number of drinks and gets paid at the end of the track, with deductions as agreed upon.

“I would clarify with the owner of the business that the service entails entertaining and serving drinks, not ‘sleeping with’ the customers, and the working hours would be from when to when.  Afterwards, If the women want to leave, they must be allowed to.  But if the owner requests an extension of service time with extra pay and the women agree to it, it would be OK with me too.  I won’t just take whatever job is on offer, only the ones I feel OK with.”, explained this Mo.

It seems that the Mo occupation is a comfortable one, sending the girls to their work sites and waiting to get the commission.  In reality, it is not easy.  A Mo has to coordinate with bar or pub owners, clarifying details of work, contacting the workers, placing them at the work sites on time, and ensuring they meet the targets.  If anything untoward happens, the Mo will have to be at the forefront, whether in person or by telephone, to clear up the problem.

This Mo confessed that working in the three Southern border provinces is something ‘super taxing’, having to deal with clients who are state officials, some of them ‘overbearing’, particularly when their blood content is highly spiked.  Facing such situations, she would tell her workers to retreat.  But she also has an advantage because state officers are more prone to be the targeted subject of news reports.

The majority of people in the Southern border areas are Muslims and are rather strict in their ways.  However, this Mo says that there are many Muslim women working with her.

Living with the religious rules

The short history of Ki (alias) is that she did not finish Grade 7; she admitted being delinquent, running away from home in her teens.  After being found and brought back home in Narathiwat, her head was shaved and she was chained indoors for one week.  That was the length of time she needed to saw off the shackle and to flee home again, never to go back until today.  Once, she and others were lured by human traffickers to do sex work in Singapore; luckily, she was able to escape.  She came to Betong in 2004 together with her first boyfriend.  When the time came for love to fade and expire, she had no money to feed herself and turned into this current path.

Ki took off the hijab when she left home.

For Muslim women, removing the hijab is a great sin, not to mention engaging in sex service which is more severe to the point of being excommunicated from the religion.  From this perspective, Ki in no longer a Muslim. However, …

“I still consider myself a Muslim, but I don’t pray nor wear a hijab.  I feel indifferent when I drink and smoke, but I don’t eat pork.  If I eat it unknowingly, I would stop when I realize what I have eaten.  It actually tastes good though,” Ki explained and smiled at her own humour.

I asked her about the principles and beliefs of Islam.  She believes in judgement day, but is not afraid because she hasn’t seen one.  Her younger sister once asked if she wasn’t afraid of sin and her answer was no because she had never seen what it was that was called sin.

“If the judgement day arrives, what answers would you give to God?”

“I can’t answer anything.  I have never studied the Islamic texts.  God speaks Malay and Arabic, but I have never studied them.  Also, I won’t know what to say and have never thought about this.”

“Are you afraid of going to hell?”

“I am somewhat.  I still believe in Allah.  When I lived in Narathiwat, I joined the fast, but haven’t done so since moving to Betong because my body is dirty, unclean.  I drink and smoke.  I wasn’t married when I got pregnant, and I never practiced zagat (alms-giving).”

It would be strange to see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab serving drinks at tables.  If one looks deeper, removing the hijab means more to a Muslim woman than removing a piece of clothing.  It implies removing her Muslim identity.  Those who choose to do so have to make compromises with themselves as well as with their religion, such as by taking the hijab off at work and putting it on when going home.

We can look it this in 2 ways: either they are removing their Muslim identity from themselves, or by removing the hijab, they are protecting their religion in the only way they possibly can.
For Ki, the explanation has not yet been found for God; she can only insist that she is still a Muslim.

Holding on to other norms

Making adjustments, negotiating, bargaining and exchanging with the variety of rules surrounding our lives are nothing peculiar; all of us do it all the time.  For some groups, some occupations, much more effort is needed in order to live with a great deal more rules and finer details, while looking for something to prop themselves up so they don’t fall apart.

Phrae Sirisakdamkoeng, whose doctoral dissertation is titled “Muslim Lives in a “Drugs Den”: A Southern Community’s Negotiated Normality in Thailand”, said that there are many types of norms in society, but people only notice major ones: legal, religious, or medical rules on health.  Drug users living in communities also make use of other norms to allow themselves to live normally in the same way as sex workers do, she explained and at the same time posed further questions:

“From the research, the norms mentioned are about how to maintain a normal, peaceful life, whether in legal, religious or well-being terms.  But there are other norms than can help people achieve the same end.  What about sex workers?  Not eating pork is very much a particular identity of Muslims.  By doing other things but not eating pork, is it a way to reaffirm that they are still Muslims?  The food we eat can identify who we are; we have to eat from morning till evening so we have to think all the time about what we can or cannot eat. Pork avoidance can inform who you are; even a sex worker has some symbolic means to inform themselves who they are.”

Eventually, ancient instincts tell human-beings that they have to do everything to survive.  It may be difficult if you are living under so many rules.  Each of us knows where the lines are drawn, where we cannot step over, where we can move the line a little, and where we can cross without care.  It is only the journey of life in which each draws their own legal, health, traditional, community and social lines, even when facing God.


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