The Thai government is now considering tougher laws on child prostitution and the sale of women and children into sexual slavery in other countries, part of a two-year-old campaign to curb these practices. But at the same time, Thai police acknowledge that they consider it proper procedure to have sex with underage prostitutes during sting operations.

In a typical operation, says Police Col. Bancha Jarujeet, the former head of a Bangkok-based unit specializing in child prostitution, plainclothes officers will enter a bar suspected of being a front for child prostitution.

Officers will wait for a proposition, insist that the prostitute in question be under 18, and pay for the girl's services in marked bills. Then the officer will finish the transaction in, for example, a hotel room.

The officer ''has to have sex with the girl in order to complete the charge,'' Colonel Bancha explains. He says he knows of at least 80 instances where such acts of government-sponsored prostitution took place.

''What he says is true,'' says Wimolsiri Jamnarnwej, a law professor who is president of Women Lawyers Association of Thailand. The officer ''has to prove that the girl has ... sex with a stranger.'' Otherwise, she adds, the police will not have sufficient evidence to implicate those who procured the prostitute and who profit from her work.

Not all Thais view this practice quite so calmly. ''If the law requires this to happen, it is stupid and should be changed,'' says Sudarat Srisang, a campaigner for tougher enforcement of laws protecting children.

Another activist, Sanphasit Koompraphant of Bangkok's Centre for the Protection of Children's Rights, calls the police actions a ''crime.''

Professor Wimolsiri says she knows of no plans to change or clarify rules governing these operations. A senior prosecutor on the staff of Thailand's attorney general says the country's Supreme Court has never ruled on the practice.

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