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Legalisation of prostitution gathers momentum

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling for prostitution to be decriminalized in the Kingdom of Thailand.

Empower Foundation, an NGO that supports sex workers, said it aims to present the petition to parliament to help persuade lawmakers to consider changing the country’s prostitution law.

“The law punishes sex workers – 80% of whom are mothers and the main breadwinner for the whole family,” said Mai Junta, a representative from Empower.

“It turns us into criminals,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Prostitution is currently punishable by a fine of up to 40,000 baht or two years in prison, or both. People who pay for sex with underage workers can be jailed for up to six years.

Although predominantly Buddhist and deeply conservative, Thailand is home to extensive sex industry, largely catering to Thai men.

Hordes of tourists also flock to the bright lights of go-go bars and massage parlors in Bangkok and the country’s main tourist towns.

Women and LGBT+ rights activists say the current law, which made prostitution illegal in 1960, does little to protect sex workers, while repeated arrests and fines for doing sex work has driven them further into poverty.

The women’s affairs department at Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security said it was in the process of amending the prostitution law and would launch an online public hearing next year, without giving further details.

“We are aware of complaints regarding rights violations of sex workers due to this law… and we are not neglecting their suggestions (to repeal the law),” a spokesman said.

A 2014 report by the UN agency fighting AIDS estimated that there were 123,530 sex workers in Thailand, but advocacy groups put the figure at more than twice that number and say it includes tens of thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

More than 24,000 people were arrested, prosecuted and fined for sex work-related offences last year, according to the Royal Thai Police.

Surang Janyam, director of the Service Workers in Group, a Thailand-based support organisation for sex workers, said the prostitution law should be repealed to allow sex workers to be protected under labour laws.

“The sex industry generates massive income (for the country), but there is no mechanism to protect (sex workers),” Ms Surang said.

Prostitution has been common in Thailand for centuries. During the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351–1767), prostitution was legal and taxed, and the state ran brothels.

Prostitution is not illegal in Thailand, although many activities associated with it are (brothels, pimping, causing a public nuisance etc.). Nevertheless, it was estimated to be worth US$6.4 billion a year in revenue (2015), accounting for a significant portion of the national GDP.

The documented history of prostitution in Thailand goes back at least six centuries, with overt and explicit references by the Chinese voyager Ma Huan (1433) and subsequently by European visitors (Van Neck, 1604; Gisbert Heeck, 1655 and others).

It is certainly not a new phenomenon, though it may have been exacerbated by the Japanese occupation during World War II and by the extensive use of Thailand as a “Rest and Recreation” facility by US forces during the Second Indochina War (c. 1963–1973).

When Rama V abolished slavery in 1905, women found themselves destitute, so they began doing sex work for survival. In 1908, laws were passed to to legalize prostitution and help sex workers get medical care.

Thailand has an ancient, continuous tradition of legal texts, generally described under the heading of Dhammasattha literature (Thai pron., tam-ma-sat), wherein prostitution is variously defined and universally banned. The era of traditional legal texts came to an end in the early 20th century, but these earlier texts were significant in regard to both the writ and spirit of modern legislation.

In the twentieth century, a variety of laws relating to the sex industry were passed, including the Contagious Diseases Prevention Act of 1908 and the Entertainment Places Act of 1966.

 In the 1950s the Thai prime minister Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat initiated a morality campaign which included the aim of criminalising prostitution through the imposition of fines and imprisonment. A system of medical examinations and “moral rehabilitation” was introduced and the focus of public blame was moved from traffickers and procurers to the prostitutes themselves.

Prostitution itself was made illegal in Thailand in 1960, when a law was passed under pressure from the United Nations.

The government instituted a system of monitoring sex workers in order to prevent their mistreatment and to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The 1960 law was repealed by the Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, B.E. 2539 (1996). Under this law prostitution as such is not illegal, but brothels, pimping and causing a public nuisance (amongst other things) are illegal.

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