Asia and the Pacific

28 February 1997

Row over Call to Boycott 'Paedophile Playground'
by Chris Gelken

Bangkok--Tactics vary on how best to end child prostitution in Thailand, but one US campaigner's policy - a boycott on investment and trade - has aroused particular hostility. Critics reject the idea, reports Gemini News Service, describing it as inaccurate, sensationalist and counter-productive.

"Don't! Buy! Thai!" urges New York author and child-rights lawyer Andrew Vachss, as part of his campaign against child prostitution in the southeast Asian country.

Vachss calls for a complete boycott of Thai products and the withdrawal of investment.

But he has been accused of using misleading statistics, misinformation and advocating counter-productive policies.

His D!B!T! campaign was created after the publication of his comic book, Batman - The Ultimate Evil, which uses the United States "superhero" character to tell the story of how the "Caped Crusader" discovers his home town, Gotham City, plagued by physical and sexual abuse of children. Batman follows the trail of pornography and prostitution to the imaginary southeast Asian nation of Udon Khai - a thinly-disguised reference to Thailand.

Vachss says everything in his book is based on facts gathered through extensive research.

"What Thailand has done," Vachss told a radio station in Salt Lake City, Utah, US, "is set up the sexual exploitation of children as a tourist attraction." The country had become a playground for paedophiles.

"It's a place where you can have sexual access to babies for money and it's so institutionalised that enforcement of the law - and I use the word sneeringly - is a joke."

Vachss and his publisher, Dark Horse Comics, are convinced the only way to force change is through sanctions and a boycott of Thai goods.

"They are selling their babies for money," Vachss said on the radio programme, "and money is what is driving them. If you strangle them economically, they will do the right thing."

Vachss and his associates say the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) once promoted trips to the Thai beach resort of Pattaya with an advertisement proclaiming: "If you can suck it, use it, feel it, eat it, taste it, abuse it or see it, then it's available in this city that never really sleeps."

TAT emphatically denies that any such promotion was conducted.

Bangkok-based public relations consultant Julian Spindler supports the denial. "No way would the TAT produce or sanction any promotional material that carries that type of message," he says.

Spindler, who has enjoyed a long-term relationship with the authority, adds: "The fact is the TAT spends considerable time and money trying to correct the impression of Thailand as a destination for sex tourists."

Estimates vary on the number of children in Thailand's commercial sex industry. The Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights (CPCR) says there are two million prostitutes, 40 per cent of whom are under 18.

Other local non-government organisations (NGOs) quote lower figures. Chris Beddoe, local representative of the international End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT), puts the number at about 200,000.

The Government offers an even lower estimate. Dr Saisuree Chutikul, of the National Committee for Women's Affairs, a department attached to the Prime Minister's office, explains the differences.

"CPCR didn't conduct a really thorough survey," she says. "They have based their figures on the results of raids on about 10 Bangkok brothels, and then multiplied that by the number of sex entertainment places they 'believe' to be spread throughout Thailand.

"If we consider their figure of more than two million women prostitutes to be accurate, that means that one in 15 Thai women are involved in the sex trade," Saisuree concludes. "And that would be a demographic impossibility."

The Government accepts that there are, perhaps, 200,000 sex workers in the country, "25 per cent of whom are probably below the age of 18," says Saisuree.

Whatever the figures, few would deny that the commercial sexual abuse of children is a major problem that needs to be addressed. Dr Vithit Munthaborn, a former United Nations official who has studied the trafficking of children, says: "No matter what statistics we use, this is a very serious matter. But we do need better data gathering. Perhaps some joint effort between the NGOs and the Government to get some statistics that would be relevant at this point in time."

As numbers vary, so do tactics to tackle the problem.

Vithit's organisation, Child Rights Asianet, is based at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, and staffed mainly by academics who act as a bridge between NGOs and government. Vithit says their best work would be to mobilise training and information on the subject of child abuse.

Meanwhile, Chris MacMahon, CPCR coordinator, is more directly involved at a grassroots level, identifying and raiding brothels or factories where children may be at risk of abuse.

Almost all local NGOs agree that cooperation and persuasion are more effective than emotional confrontation in bringing about changes in the law and in local attitudes to prostitution in general and child abuse in particular. This sets them against Andrew Vachss and his D!B!T! campaign.

MacMahon believes Vachss' campaign could cause more problems than it solves.

"If such a boycott were even partially successful," MacMahon says, "it could have the effect of pushing kids [working in the industrial export sector] into more vulnerable sectors - such as prostitution."

ECPAT's Beddoe agrees: "From our perspective, a boycott has the potential to hurt those it is supposed to support."

Vithit is more generous. "While I can respect Mr Vachss for his good intentions, if he means to bring about certain changes on behalf of the children, there are different ways of doing things and different ways in which pressure can be exerted.

"Boycotting should be seen as a last resort, and when we look at human rights in countries we should be comprehensive in our approach. Thailand is bad on many fronts, but it's not bad on every front. There are a lot of good people here trying to work with children, including many from the Government and the police.

"If, on the other hand, Mr Vachss and co. want to initiate sanctions against Burma, which has a comprehensively bad record on human rights, then I'm all in favour."

Dark Horse Comics, meanwhile, continue to do business in Thailand. They defend their activities by saying it's a way of taking money out of the country.

About the Author: Chris Gelken is a broadcaster and writer based in Bangkok.

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