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The sordid traffic touches nearly every part of Asia. But Thailand and India in particular serve as hubs of the flesh trade: exporters and importers of children and adults on a massive scale. An estimated 7,000 Nepalese children are smuggled into India each year to join the sex industry. In the age of AIDS, children increasingly earn the biggest profits. With a girl's virginity selling for as much as $3,500 in Bangkok, recurring recessions have ensured a ready supply of daughters sold by poverty-stricken families. The number of child prostitutes in Thailand is at least 60,000, though estimates go as high as 200,000. Almost all are working under duress: 21st century slaves.
The numbers are wrenching, but to comprehend the problem, one need only watch the sordid hour-by-hour lives of girls like Lek and Tip. As we talked with them over a few days, our sense of being impartial observers gave way to a feeling of being uncomfortable voyeurs and then grew to a gnawing sense that just by watching the children's degradation we were somehow implicated. I'm not sure at what point we decided that, although we couldn't guarantee their futures, we could buy their freedom. We could help them escape.
Lek had already tried. On her second day, after instruction from Mama San on how to apply makeup and satisfy a client, a drunken Bangkok businessman beat her when she complained he was being too rough. She fled when she was released from the hospital. "I went to the temple," she says, pointing to the golden stupas on a hill high above the eastern outskirts of Mae Sai. "Mama San paid the police to come and arrest me. They held me there with only bread and water for three days. After that I was too afraid to run away. Mama San knows people everywhere, on both sides of the border. She could arrange for me to be taken back to her anytime. Tip knew this: she told me not to go."
Although Lek and Tip have been in Mae Sai for only a few months when we meet them, they have already learned to hide their inner thoughts. "We don't have feelings anymore," says Tip. "We cleared them out." But they can still dream of freedom, can still tell us they want out. They talk about how hard they would hug their mothers if they ever get home, so tightly no one could ever separate them again. "My mother would be really upset if she knew what I was doing and I desperately want to tell her," says Lek. "But I can't because it would break her heart. Every time I speak to her, she pleads with me to come home."
That's how Jonathan and I found ourselves driving to the ATM, withdrawing $930 41,000 baht and buying Lek and Tip. It wasn't merely the prospect of these two children steadily building up their collection of chips over the next decade that compelled us. It was partially witnessing the despair of the other girls who had buried all hope with their childhoods. Girls like Pim, who works in a brothel a few meters up the road.
When we ask, Pim insists she is 19. She's probably closer to 12. Less than 1.5 m tall, her platform heels only highlight how short her legs are. Her tissue-stuffed bra emphasizes her flat chest. And the bright green eye shadow and heavy rouge she wears give her all the vampishness of a seventh-grader playing the clown in a school play. The most popular of the girls in her brothel, picked out by up to three customers a day, she insists she has never been happier. But sitting in a restaurant by the Nam Ruak River, the 10-m-wide watery frontier at Mae Sai's northern end, Pim can't stop gazing at her homeland on the opposite bank. For a few moments, the mask drops. "No one is here because they want to be here," she murmurs. "Everyone's here because they have to be." Looking away, she starts quietly weeping. Without a good command of Thai or the right documents allowing her to return to her village in Burma, Pim has given up all hope of leaving. Besides, her Mama San insists Pim owes her $2,000, her purchase price. And how could she get money to pay? When asked if she wants to go home, she looks away at something far off in the distance. Staying, on the other hand, carries its own paralyzing fear. "My regular customers are Thai, the visitors are Japanese," she says. "When they're drunk, none of them want to wear condoms. You can't force them."
Like Tip, Pim comes from eastern Burma. A member of the Akha minority, one of the hill tribes that populate that region, she was born in a settlement outside Kentung, an area of wild jungle mountains that doubles as rebel country and forms the heart of the Golden Triangle opium and amphetamine production zone. Pim remembers a tough but happy childhood raising chickens and working the rice fields on her parents' land, which clings to a steep ridge above a clear rushing stream.
One day a trader came to the village. He spoke of riches beyond a poor farming family's dreams: $2,000 now and more to follow when Pim sent money home from Thailand. Her mother told her she would be working as a mae bai, a maid. Pim, who had no reason to doubt her, found herself being packed off. The trader, keen to make a trip so far up-country pay, had hired a minivan: Pim describes how her first day in captivity was spent driving from village to village as the man picked up a total of 12 girls. Bribing his way past the many Burmese road checkpoints and buying forged visitor papers allowing the girls to work in Mae Sai proved to be routine. The rebel threat and drug running give even honest Burmese security forces in the area other priorities.