Isolation: Observations from a Lahu Hill Tribe Village

        Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, a certain invulnerability, that I feel in this place. I take in a breath of fresh air. We are hidden in a small bamboo village, sitting perched on the edge of a large jungle valley. There is no easy way to get here. If large-scale development were to try to reach this place, it wouldn’t stand a chance. Ja Bu Si is a secluded oasis. We are buried in the northern mountains of Thailand, making conversation with the children who call it their home.

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        We watched the children climb fearlessly through the dense forest they call home. Astonishingly, these children are not actually Thai citizens. What’s more is that, even if they were to grow up seeking citizenship, there is a very small chance they would ever be granted it. They were born in Thailand, but belong to a hill tribe that came from the Tibetan Plateau. The Lahu people settled in northern Thailand centuries ago, yet have been shunned by most of society. Tribal people are stereotypically viewed as poor and uneducated, less than human, and have been blamed for problems like deforestation. However, there is truth in some of these stereotypes, but not at the fault of the Lahu people.

        It is true that, on average, tribal people are less educated than other Thais, for without Thai citizenship a child cannot attend a government-funded school. The older kids in our village did, in fact, go to school, but only because it was one built in another tribe’s village. They would make a long trek through the jungle to the school and stay there for days, coming home on the weekends. It is true that, on average, tribal people are poorer than other Thais, for it is almost impossible to get a stable job without education or an ID. And finally, it is true that tribal people have had to clear away forest areas in order to build villages, for it is difficult, as you could imagine, to secure land rights anywhere else without proper documents, such as identification papers. With little money, dodgy education, and no rights, the people of the hill tribes are of the most marginalized in the country and have become prime victims for the human trafficking industry.

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        Despite prostitution being illegal, Thailand is known as the sex tourism capital of the world. The Thai legal system can be described as faulty at best, as little to no arrests for sex trafficking are made. This can be attributed to both corruption and gaps in the system.

        In Thailand, there are certain bars that cater primarily to white male tourists, although locals sometimes frequent them as well. Within the bar, a customer will be seated at a table and immediately greeted by a girl or two. While at the table, the customer is allowed to do whatever they wish to the girl, such as touching or kissing. The girl’s job is to convince the customer that she adores them, with the end game being that the customer approaches the bar owner. They then pay a bar fee to take the girl away with them for the night. Herein lies the loophole in the legal system. Because the customer is paying the bar owner for the girl and not the girl directly for her services, coupled with the money not being explicitly paid for sex, it is not legally defined as prostitution in Thailand. On top of all of this, policemen can also sometimes be seen lounging in and around the bars. They are not there with the intention of making arrests.

        There are countless stories of hill tribe girls being taken from their homes and forced into the sex trafficking industry, as this group is of the most vulnerable to this situation. The way it typically plays out is that a man will come to a village and tell a girl’s family that there is a job opening in Bangkok. The man explains that their daughter will be working as a waitress in a restaurant and will be sending home around 600 Thai baht a week, the equivalent of around $20. This prospect is near irresistible to the parents, who are struggling financially. The practice of filial piety, which is essentially the belief of duty to one’s elders, is prevalent in many countries that hold Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, including Thailand. The girl is expected to do what her parents say, placing their needs above her own. This helps fuel the side of sex trafficking that is most difficult to combat: psychological slavery.

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        When she arrives in Bangkok, the young girl will be forced to work in a bar, selling herself to strangers. She becomes caught in a trap of guilt and humiliation and cannot stop working. Even if she could physically escape the establishment, the idea that the bar owner knows the location of her family is enough to quell such a plan.

        What would her parents think of her if she came home? Some parents are oblivious and do not know what is going on or where their daughter is. Others know exactly where their girl is and are satisfied with the money being sent home.

        A tourist usually pays 6,000 to 7,000 baht for a girl, the equivalent of around $200. The money is paid to the bar owner and only a tiny percentage trickles down to the girl, who is suffering physically and emotionally. That completes the cycle of internal destruction of a girl for the production of wealth and male sexual pleasure.

        Isolation. There is a feeling of quiet isolation, but there are shadows creeping around us. I have come to realize that the invulnerability I once felt was simply an illusion. We are hidden in a small bamboo village, sitting perched atop the edge of a large valley decorated in dense forest. But beyond that forest lies a road, a paved pathway leading to the heart of a scornful society. We are buried in a jungle in Thailand, making conversation with the children who are told that it is not their home.

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Words and images by Luke Netzley

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