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Documentary Film Looks at Sex Trafficking in SE Asia - 2003-07-29

TV stations across the United States recently aired the documentary, Trading Women, by anthropologist and filmmaker David A. Feingold. An anthropologist by training and a fluent speaker of several Asian languages, including three dialects of Thai and Akha, he aimed to create a film that would differentiate sex trafficking from prostitution in Asia.

“Quite often people misunderstand from, well, documentaries that I’ve seen where all the footage is from Patpong that this is the Thai sex scene. (music) That is not the Thai sex scene. The Thai sex scene that we work with is much more sinister. It is much more hidden. It is in the type of places that tourists would never go near it…”

The documentary is described as “the first film to shatter western myths about the southeast Asian sex trade…” Filmed in Burma, China, Laos and Thailand, the film follows the trade in women, talking to the women themselves and to brothel owners.

An NGO worker in Thailand was interviewed for the film.

"The issue has become a major issue. It is big business. It is something worth like 8 million dollars a year. It is not like drugs where it is consumed and that is the end of it. Women and girls who are trafficked and continue provide economic benefit for a very long time."

The film recently screened at the Asia Society in Washington, DC where Feingold spoke about his documentary. He explained to the audience, a mix of NGOs or non-governmental organizations’ employees, women’s rights scholars, diplomats and reporters, why he decided to study the sex trade in Asia.

"My simpleminded question was why was it 30 years ago when there was a vast sex industry in Thailand there were no minority girls in that sex industry? There were no Akha, no Lahu, no Lisu, no Yao, no Hmong, no Karen. Did Dad all of a sudden look at little Atsu and say she is worth a TV set?"

His interviews with family members of missing women or with women themselves who returned from work in the larger cities of Thailand and Malaysia obliterate the myth that tribal people suddenly decided to sell their women and daughters for material gains.

All of the women were either tricked into the sex trade through false offers of waitressing jobs or they consented due to dire financial situations at home.

Many famous faces appear in the documentary—Dr. Saisuree Chutikul, former Thai cabinet minister, senator and member of United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, plus, Mr. Kyaw Tint Swe, the Burmese ambassador to the UN—not to mention, famous voices.

Angelina Jolie, an actress known for her movie role as explorer/adventurer Lara Croft, and the mother of a recently adopted Cambodian baby, narrates the film.

“Southeast Asia is the center of a great flow of women. Burma, China, and Laos form a reservoir of girls feeding the Thai sex industry, while Thai women feed the sex industries of Japan and the West. But girls also move from Burma and Laos into China. To understand trafficking, you have to understand the circumstances of minority women and why they leave their villages.”

Another film, Hollywood movie City of Ghosts (and actor Matt Dillon’s directorial debut), notes Cambodia's sex industry. The movie takes the main character to Cambodia where he discovers everything from Buddhist temples to dark alleyways where underage girls are sold by the hour.

The U.S. State Department website on trafficking,, states that 40-60% of Cambodia’s commercial sex workers are victims of trafficking.

In October 2000, President Clinton signed into action a bill produced by U.S. Senators Sam Brownback and the now-deceased Senator Sam Wellstone. The bill called for a review of various countries’ treatment of women and provided a three-tier rating for each country with the third tier being the worst. Feingold makes clear that the bill is useful, but questions the usefulness of sanctions.

Feingold also surprised the audience by pointing out another myth he hoped to dispel.

"Myths…most people who are trafficked are women. There is absolutely no basis for this whatsoever. It is something that is made up. One, it is not at all clear that most people who are trafficked are female. Two, it is not clear that all people who are trafficked are trafficked for sex. It is probable that most people are trafficked for exploited forms of labor."

Children always seem to be the victims.

"There are kids who are trafficked from Cambodia to Thailand for begging, and sometimes they become exploited for sex, but the real trafficking is for begging. There are all sorts of trafficking. This is just one small aspect that can have a big impact on these relatively indiscreet groups."

He also noted incidences within the fishing industry.

"There is significant trafficking of boys and young men onto fishing boats in South Asia. One study found that there is a 10% death rate from kids who if they go sick got tossed over board. It is not as sexy as saving fallen women from sin."

But it was the devastating impact of trafficking on hill people and other minorities that lead him to focus on the trafficking of women. In particular, he cited the many instances where young women return to villages after being trafficked, but only to die from AIDS or tuberculosis.

A part of what moved Feingold to make the film was a desire to bring these issues into the open.