When Pon and Tai were 15, a woman showed up one day in their village in Burma, just across the Thai border. She promised to take the two girls on a sight seeing tour of Bangkok. When they got there, she dropped them off at a brothel. They were locked up, and their virginity was quickly sold for $40. Soon, they say, they were forced to service four or five customers a day-up to a dozen on weekends without payment. Fearful of AIDS, which they learned about from Thai television, they offered to buy clients condoms out of their meager tip money. Most men refused. Now both girls are being cared for at Bangkok's Emergency Home for Women and have tested HIV-positive, according to officials at the home. "The men knew about AIDS but didn't care," says Pon, now 17 "They certainly didn't care about us."
Pon and Tai are just two of the tragic victims from the latest frontier of the AIDS epidemic. It was only a matter of time before the disease gripped Thailand, with its ubiquitous brothels and booming tourist sex business. And now it has, with a vengeance: government statistics show that between 200,000 and 400,000 Thais are currently carrying the AIDS virus, and some private groups believe the figure is closer to 500,000--or nearly 1 percent of the population. By the turn of the century, the World Health Organization estimates, between 2 million and 4 million Thais will be infected, more than half of them women. A new study by Harvard University's International AIDS Center predicts that by then Asia-- with Thailand and India in the lead--will surpass Africa in HIV-positive cases. In the year 2000 alone, medical experts fear, as many as 180,000 Thais could become sick from AIDS-and up to 160,000 could die. "That means one out of three funerals will be for a person who died of AIDS," says government minister and AIDS activist Viravaidya Mechai.
The reason is prostitution. The AIDS virus, which first surfaced in Bangkok's gay bars some eight years ago, has ravaged Thailand's sex shops. Some studies show that 15 to 20 percent of the nation's prostitutes are already HIV-positive. An aggressive nationwide campaign has dramatically increased AIDS awareness and condom use. But it is not enough; many Thai men don't like condoms or don't believe that they work. Others stubbornly maintain that they are immune to the AIDS virus. Prostitutes are often too shy or frightened to ask clients to wear them. "If we don't change our sexual behavior drastically," says Mechai, "it will be hard to find an AIDS-free man in 10 years."
The real challenge facing government and health officials is to change the fundamental way that Thais--and foreign tourists--think about sex. For ma a trip to the neighborhood brothel is a rite of passage, a tradition passed from father to son. In one recent study, 73 percent of new recruits in the Thai Army said they had lost their virginity to a prostitute. Even among the upper classes, hosts are expected to provide prostitutes for their guests.
While many young people become prostitutes for the money, a great many others are sold or tricked into the flesh trade--even by their families. Ahnong, a 13-year-old girl from a northwest city, was freed during a recent raid on a brothel. She has since tested positive for the AIDS virus, according to her legal guardian. Now living in a Chiang Mai shelter, Ahnong has trouble comprehending the ordeal she has been through: she claims she was not a prostitute but only helped out" cleaning up the brothel.
As horror stories like Ahnong's filter back to rural Thai villages, other Thai girls are wising up and refusing to travel to the cities. " The good news is that the supply side is changing," says Mechai. "Fewer Thai girls are going into prostitution now. But the bad news is that girls from Burma, from our hill tribes and even from China are being recruited to replace Thais." Brothel recruiters are journeying into remote areas in search of young women. According to 18-year-old Ahmii (not her real name), a brothel agent lured her from her village in northwestern Thailand with the promise of a good dish washing job in a nearby city. She was taken straight to a seedy brothel and says she was forced to sleep with nine or 10 men a night. Recently freed, she is attending school and learning to sew doll clothes at an American Christian missionary hostel in Chiang Mai. But, according to the director of the hostel, no one has yet had the heart to tell her that she has tested HIV-positive.
Before Thai men can really change their attitudes about sex, they need first to change their attitudes about women. Most men consider women to be either sexual objects or obedient homemakers. And while it is perfectly acceptable for men to visit prostitutes, premarital sex between men and women who are dating is strictly forbidden. Many Thais believe that this double standard has helped create the thriving sex trade. "In Thailand, women are supposed to be chaste until marriage and monogamous afterward," says writer and social critic Sukanya Hantrakul. " Men are supposed to be promiscuous."
Thai women have long endured their second-class status in silence. But as more and more of them contract the AIDS virus from their husbands, they are beginning to speak out. It is a matter of life and death; women have a 10 times greater risk of contracting the AIDS virus from men than men do from women. At the current rate, at least 1.5 million Thai women will be HIV-positive by the year 2000, and so will one third of their children. Many women are confronting their husbands and talking openly about sex in ways that would have shocked their mothers.
One answer to Thailand's AIDS crisis seems obvious: crack down on the illegal brothels. Why doesn't the government do it? Because commercial sex is big business, and everyone from politicians to the local police can share in the profits. Police raids on brothels are usually the result of an establishment breaking an unwritten law, like holding girls against their will or employing prostitutes under the age of 14.
Nor does the government want to dampen the tourist trade. Ever since the '60s, when American GIs in Vietnam took their leave on Thailand's scenic beaches, visitors have flocked to Thailand for the sun, the sights and the sex. It is unclear exactly how many come looking for love; two thirds of the 5 million tourists who visit each year are male, and 20 percent are single men from nearby Malaysia and Singapore coming in for day trips. And though foreign tourists are increasingly aware--and wary--of the dangers of unprotected sex with local prostitutes, there still are organized sex tours from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, the United States and Europe. AIDS activists worry that the government now may begin deliberately minimizing the AIDS danger to restore Thailand's international image, recently tarnished by the army's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Indeed, after Thailand's first AIDS case was detected in a gay man in 1984, the government initially responded with ignorance and denial. By 1986 AIDS had spread among Thai homosexuals and was making its way into the population of about 100,000 intravenous drug users. Since then, HIV-infection rates have stabilized in those two groups, in large part because they quickly adopted safer practices as they saw their friends and lovers die. But among heterosexuals, the numbers continue to soar because very few straight, drug-free Thais have yet shown signs of the disease. " You don't notice there's a fire danger until your own house is on fire," says Santisuda Ekachai, who has reported on the crisis for the Bangkok Post. "It may take more AlDS deaths among family and friends to drive the message home. "
Thais are beginning to fight back. The government, the business sector and private organizations have joined forces to form the National AIDS Committee, which is waging a vigorous nationwide AIDS education campaign. Billboards, magazine advertisements and television and radio spots repeatedly warn of the dangers. But condom use is the centerpiece of the campaign. In 1991 alone, the government handed out 70 million condoms. Health officials routinely visit brothels to educate sex workers. The campaign is clearly helping; a recent survey found that 84 percent of all men who visit sex shops use condoms today, compared with 20 percent five years ago.
Still, change comes slowly. Many provincial women want a taste of big-city life, and they are often tempted by the fancy clothes, gifts and gadgets they see other women bring back from their jobs in the city. "It's difficult to create viable income-producing alternatives in poor villages that can compete with the earning powers of prostitution," says Deborah Kacanek, an American volunteer with Bangkok's Population and Community Development Association.
The recent reappointment of Anand Panyarachun as prime minister will help, at least in the short term. As caretaker prime minister last year, he chaired the National AIDS Committee and supported increased AIDS awareness while opposing sex tourism. Unfortunately, Anand's is only a temporary administration, with a maximum Iife span of four months. AIDS activists are worried that the next government will not share his commitment to the anti-AIDS crusade. But the job has been started. Day by day, the Thai people are beginning to change their deadly ways. They are in for a long and painful fight.