In a Shady Bangkok Brothel, A Raid Fails to Free Child Prostitutes

Brothel architecture is telling. In Bangkok, houses of prostitution tend to be big, boxy buildings with practically no windows and neon-lit signs advertising massage. Sometimes they are converted hotels whose windows have been boarded up. The sex trade does well without sunlight.

The child prostitutes are a little harder to find. In late June, at the Paris Massage and Turkish Baths brothel in Bangkok, a group of children sat at a table in the establishment's dimly lit restaurant.

In a room full of men conversing, eating, and drinking, the dek-dek, or kids, looked as if they were up past their bedtime. They didn't look like the older prostitutes sitting in the establishment's garishly lit foyer, most of whom wore dresses, high heels, and buttons with numbers. But the kids were for sale.

One of the children, Noi, had on a T-shirt, tan pants, and plastic sandals. She told her story to two American researchers, posing as customers, who paid the brothel proprietors 2,500 baht ($100) for Noi's time. The researchers, both women, briefly interviewed her in one of the brothel's bedrooms with the help of a Thai-speaking American journalist who was allowed to make introductions. This reporter and a friend of the women waited downstairs.

Noi - a pseudonym - had come from her home in the northeastern part of Thailand a week earlier and said her mother knew where she was. She had serviced eight clients, three of whom had been "rough." She wanted to leave but said the proprietors "will not allow it." She insisted she was 17, but looked a couple of years younger. Thai customers paid $52 for her, of which she kept $8.

She seemed aware of the risk of infection from HIV, the virus associated with AIDS, and had some condoms with her. She purchased her own birth control pills.

While Noi was being interviewed, a girl who looked to be about 12 years old appeared at the "kid's" table. She seemed listless and distraught. Older, apparently more experienced girls stayed with her and one of the proprietors tried to cheer her up.

Staff members of the Center for the Protection of Children's Rights, a Thai nongovernmental organization that crusades against child prostitution, later speculated that the young girl might have been recovering from one of her first sexual experiences. Concerned about Noi and the other child prostitutes, CPCR members organized a police investigation of the brothel several days after the interview.

The plan was for a CPCR staffer and me to enter the brothel first to confirm that the two girls were there. He would use a cellular phone to contact another staff member waiting with police. The police were not to be told the name of the brothel until the last minute, in order to minimize the chance of a corrupt officer tipping off the brothel proprietors.

The staffer and I entered the brothel and spotted Noi sitting at the "kid's" table, but not the younger girl. As the police were on their way, Noi went upstairs, apparently without a customer. The CPCR staffer attempted to call off the raid as police entered the establishment. They were in street clothes, but the haircuts and physiques of some of them might as well have been uniforms.

As they walked in, a lone child prostitute sitting at the table quickly went upstairs. The officers sat down, had some drinks, and then left.

"There was a terrible lack of planning," conceded the CPCR staffer after the raid. He asked for anonymity in order to preserve his ability to participate in future investigations.

It is impossible to tell whether the brothel owners were warned by corrupt police.

But on July 1, the CPCR worker returned to the brothel, again posing as a potential customer. A waitress told him that the establishment used to offer child prostitutes, but no longer.

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