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Three months ago, a squad of Thai police arrived on Khaosan Road, one of Bangkok’s most popular nightlife destinations for tourists and local revelers. The police returned to their headquarters in Northern Bangkok later that night with five children, all of them Burmese and under the age of ten. The next morning, two more children were brought in with a man who one child referred to as his “boss.”
The children had been selling roses to tourists on Khaosan Road and were suspected to be victims of human trafficking. Several months later, those seven children are now living in state shelters and the “boss,” Maung Miang U, is awaiting trial in Bangkok’s Remand Prison. Maung Miang, who is 22 and also Burmese, confessed to bringing three of the children from their home in Myanmar to sell flowers in Bangkok.
“Their father was poor and didn’t have money, so I helped,” Maungom the children’s rose sales back to their parents in Myanmar every month. However, the children who sell roses on Khaosan Road can bring in twice that amount in a single night. Maung Miang declined to answer a question about where the rest of the money went.
Rose-selling children have become of regular feature of Bangkok’s top nightlife locales. The children, some as young as five-years-old, weave through crowds of tourists and local partiers, peddling red roses until the bars close.
But unlike the child beggars in Bangkok, most of whom are Cambodian and travel to Thailand with their mothers, the rose-selling children are almost all Burmese and have come to Bangkok without their families. Many of them are sent by their parents, who expect to receive monthly payments and see their children returned after a short time. More often than not, the money stops and the kids never come home.
“I let them go because I didn’t know anything,” said Mya Hla Tin*, a Burmese woman gave two of her sons to a man who promised to take them to sell roses in Bangkok and send back money every month. She had no idea that she would stop receiving money after only a few months, or that her children’s “caretaker” in Bangkok would refuse to send her sons back.
“I was in complete trouble,” Mya Hla Tin recounted. “I couldn’t earn enough to pay the house rent.”
According to Vittanatpat Rattanawarepong, who runs the Stop Child Begging campaign for the Mirror Foundation in Bangkok, at least 500 children have been trafficked in this manner to sell roses in tourist destinations around Thailand. Less than a quarter of them are ever returned to their families.
Because many of the families are Burmese migrants living in Thailand illegally, they afraid to ask government officials for help, said Vittanatpat.
“Families come to us and show pictures from 10 years ago and say they haven’t seen their kids since.”
A lack of follow through
Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, a world-famous “backpacker ghetto,” is jam-packed with bars, nightclubs, Burger Kings, and touristy trinket shops. But the first building tourists see when they enter the street’s western entrance is a police station.
“Many things happen here,” said Sanga Ruangwattanaku, the president of the Khaosan Road business association. “I won’t call them illegal, but let’s just say they are against the law.”
According to Sanga, local police are fully aware of the rose-selling children’s “situations.”
“They are not paid off, but they collect fees,” Sanga said. “They will do a certain job in a certain period, and close one eye during another period.”
Police from the Chanasongkram station on Khaosan Road declined to comment.
The most recent raid on Khaosan Road took place on 19 June, when Thailand’s military rulers were scrambling to make up for a year of bad press surrounding the country’s dismal record of combating human trafficking.
It was the day before the United States was set to release its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which ultimately downgraded Thailand for failing to meet the minimum standards needed to eliminate trafficking. Thailand is now a member of the “Tier 3” category, alongside countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
According to the report, “local and national-level police officers established protective relationships with traffickers in trafficking hot-spot regions to which they were assigned.”
Officials and NGO workers interviewed by Khaosod English consistently reported that Thai police only stage raids on Khaosan Road and similar areas when they need to fill a quota or take advantage of a PR opportunity.
“The police in the local area don’t really want to handle cases like this,” said Vittanatpat from the Mirror Foundation. “Human trafficking cases require many units to work together, but no one wants to take care of it so they throw the cases between departments.”
Ever since the June raid, the rose-selling children on Khaosan Road have been less visible. One of the regular rose-selling girls now appears to be working at a kebab stand. The others have only been seen sporadically, unlike the consistent seven-day-a-week schedule they maintained before the raid. However, the presence of rose-selling children in other areas around Bangkok, such as Asoke and Ekkamai, remains the same.
The periodic police raids do thankfully rescue some children from this exploitation. Yet all too often they leave the trafficking infrastructure intact. As a result, it doesn’t matter how many children are rescued because it’s only a matter of time before traffickers find news ones to replace them.
Before June, the last raid on rose-selling children in Bangkok was in 2008; just like the most recent raid, the only person arrested was the children’s “caretaker” in Bangkok. Again and again, the brokers who strike deals with the children’s parents and transport the kids to Bangkok are left untouched.
“When children are rescued or able to flee back home, the agents in Bangkok will simply contact their middlemen at the original province to supply more kids,” explains Vittanatpat.
‘Fun and games’
While new Burmese parents must be periodically approached to replenish the “supply,” the demand side of the rose-selling market never changes. The enterprise is funded by a steady flow of cash from the pockets of tourists in places like Khaosan Road.
The youngest of the rose-selling children stumble absently around Khaosan Road’s chaotic party scene, winning tourists over with their innocence. But the older children have devised more complicated schemes. Speaking basic English, they make jokes, play hand games, and charm customers into buying a rose or two. But their smiling faces are fleeting; as soon as the sale is made, a profound sense of sadness returns to their eyes.
Many of the tourists on Khaosan Road buy roses thoughtlessly; they are drunk, the children are cute, and what’s 20 baht anyways? Furthermore, Khaosan Road — known as the “gateway to southeast Asia” — is a common pit-stop for backpackers setting out to travel around the region. As a result, many of the partiers who end up on Khaosan have only been in Thailand, and perhaps Asia, for a day or two.
“For many people it’s their first Asian experience,” explained Andrew Fortnum, who leads trips for Free and Easy Traveler across Thailand. “They’re not really sure or clear of what is typical.”
Unable to tell the difference between a Thai and Burmese child, many tourists assume the rose-sellers are just local kids trying to help their families.
“It’s fun for us, and it’s money for them,” said a 20-something German tourist when asked why he bought a rose. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Though some well-intentioned tourists may genuinely believe that buying a rose will help the impoverished-looking children, in reality, their money is precisely what’s keeping them enslaved.
“It’s basic economics,” said Vittanatpat from the Mirror Foundation. “If there’s no buyer, there will be no seller. What’s the point of buying more kids if nobody wants to buy the flowers?”
Nyi Nyi, an eleven year old Burmese boy, sold roses for more than a year before he was rescued by police. But the other Burmese girl he lived with wasn’t as lucky. According to Nyi Nyi, she was too scared to tell police the truth.
“She was scared that she would be beaten,” Nyi Nyi said. “When we couldn’t sell [enough flowers], we were violently beaten.”
Although dozens of rose-selling children can be seen on Khaosan Road any given night, only a couple of them make it into the shelter system every year, says Ms. Kanoknop, a social worker at the The Pakkred Reception Home for Boys.
And yet those children still face a long road home. Stage agencies and NGOs in Thailand and Myanmar must cooperate to sort through legal matters, locate and evaluate the children’s families, and facilitate the repatriation process. All together, the children may need to stay in shelters for over a year.
Social workers are currently working to locate the parents of the three children rescued in June who lived with Maung Miang and have been identified as victims of trafficking. One of the children, a seven year old boy, has already testified before state lawyers. Maung Miang has been charged with child trafficking and could face up to 15 years in prison.
But the story behind the four other children picked up in the same police raid remains unclear.
According to social workers at the shelter, the two other Burmese boys rescued that night did not live with their parents in Bangkok — their parents live in Myanmar and Mae Sot, a town 500 km northwest of Bangkok that borders Myanmar and has been a target for human traffickers for years. Yet these children are not being treated as victims of trafficking, said Kanoknop, a social worker at shelter.
“It’s up to police,” Kanoknop explained. “The police determined that they are not victims of human trafficking.”
However, police from the Anti-Trafficking Division provided a different account.
“Since the shelter home has not contacted the police at all, we believe they have been determined to be non-victims,” said Pol.Col. Chitpop Tomuan, who was responsible for the June raid. “For [the other four children’s] situation, you should talk directly to the shelter home because it is their responsibility.”
Pol.Col. Chitpop said his department is not planning to stage another raid in the near future or investigate any other suspected traffickers.
According to Thailand’s 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, child trafficking is defined as “procuring, buying, selling, vending, bringing from or sending to, detaining or confining, harboring, or receiving a child” for the purpose of exploitation.
With strict rules protecting the privacy of the children, it’s difficult to know the details of their stories. Yet no one involved in the case has been able to explain why only three of the children are being treated as victims of trafficking. Perhaps there is a true legal basis for the differentiation, or perhaps, like many others, their case is simply falling through the cracks.