CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A hug, a hand on her knee, a kiss on the cheek: teenage waitress Pim would not allow the customers to go any further at a karaoke bar in northern Thailand where she was found in a police raid.
The 16-year-old was one of four teenage bar staff who were uncovered earlier this month in an anti-trafficking operation in Chiang Mai, a tourist hotspot with a well-established sex trade.
The four girls, all under the age of 18, told social workers after the raid on two bars that they were not forced to have sex with customers nor ordered to wear miniskirts and low-cut tops.
“Some customers touched my breasts, but I pushed their hands away,” said Pim, who could earn up to 700 baht ($23) each night - more than double the daily minimum wage in Thailand - working for the owner of the bar who she always referred to as “mother”.
While Thailand has ramped up efforts to tackle child sex trafficking in recent years, the crime is evolving and taking new forms such as the rising use of girls as “entertainers” to lure men into bars, according to police chiefs and campaigners.
The majority of patrons, child waitresses and bar owners do not see this work as abusive or unlawful, but officials say it is a type of human trafficking that has largely gone under the radar - and proved difficult to investigate and prosecute.
“Most of the offenders are karaoke bar owners who have an understanding that it is ok for children to do this type of work when in fact it’s considered sex trafficking,” police lieutenant colonel Likhit Thanomchua told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Most of the time, the first thing (the bar owners) say when they’re interviewed is, ‘I didn’t use these children for prostitution’,” added Thanomchua, who is a member of the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) taskforce.
In most cases, police find suspected victims online as bars showcase their young waitresses on social media, he added.
The owners of the two karaoke bars raided this month have been charged with human trafficking and employing workers under the age of 18 without obtaining permission from the government.
But securing justice in such cases is difficult as the police often do not see the abuse as a crime or are reluctant to launch investigations, said Wirawan Mosby, director of the HUG Project, a charity that helps trafficked children in Chiang Mai.
“Police know that the children won’t cooperate and there’s a high chance that prosecutors won’t file charges since it is more difficult to find evidence than (in) cases of prostitution.”
“(Many) children call the bar owners ‘mother’. There’s a sense of family, and ... obligation involved,” Mosby added.
QUESTION OF TRUST
Thailand is a major source, transit and destination country for children who are sex trafficked throughout southeast Asia.
Tens of thousands of people are thought to work in the sex trade that is illegal yet widely tolerated - most do so freely, others against their will - and activists say many are children.
Sexual exploitation is the main form of modern-day slavery in Thailand - making up more than half of the 191 human trafficking cases recorded by the government so far this year.
While most instances involve children sold for sex or used to produce pornography, cops and campaigners are also grappling with new forms of abuse that they class as human trafficking.
Thailand’s anti-trafficking taskforce has been involved in a dozen child “entertainer” cases - most involving karaoke bars - after making the first arrest in 2017 over three children working in a bar in the northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima region.
Its most high profile operation to-date involved two karaoke bar owners in Chiang Mai - a husband and wife - who were jailed in March for almost 23 years for human trafficking and other offences, and ordered to pay 500,000 baht to five child victims.
Ratchapon Maneelek, a director at the government’s anti-trafficking division, said it was tough to crack the crime as it was hard to identify compared to cases of child prostitution.
“What’s challenging is how to gain trust from the child victims ... because they don’t want anyone to know that they are doing this type of work or that they’ve been touched,” he said.
DRINKS, MONEY, OPPORTUNITY
The child sex trade in Thailand has evolved in recent years as men no longer meet children at brothels but first engage with them at karaoke bars, pubs or online, said Ketsanee Chantrakul, a program manager at anti-trafficking charity ECPAT Foundation.
“Due to the strict prostitution laws, (businesses) have shifted their business model, arguing that the children are earning extra money as ‘entertainers’,” said Chatrakul.
For many Thai girls such as Pim - who grew up in a farming village about 70 km from the city of Chiang Mai - the allure of opportunity and a steady income is often too hard to turn down.
“Life is tough at home. I didn’t want to stay there,” said Pim, who left home about a year ago and headed to the city with 1,000 baht provided by her mother. “My friend said I would get good money (at the karaoke bar), and my parents didn’t oppose.”
“At least I didn’t get bored there,” she added. “I got to drink and talk to people.”
Pim - who said the bar owner did not ask her to fill in an application form or check her identity card before hiring her - is now in a shelter and expected to give evidence in court soon.
While her life is in limbo, other girls who have been found toiling in bars in recent years are hopeful about their futures - such as 18-year-old Nat, who now works as a nursing assistant.
"Nat was at the shelter for only a month, but ... she said she realised that she could do more than the type of work she used to do," said a social worker who worked with the teenager after she was rescued last year. "She came to value herself." (Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)