Notes from the Field: Bangkok, Day 5 by Ruxandra Guidi

Bangkok | July 5, 2013 (photo by Bear Guerra)

Bangkok | July 5, 2013 (photo by Bear Guerra)

July 3, 2013

People in Bangkok love their malls. Siam Center, Fortune Town, The Emporium, Fashion Island. Not only can you get cheap massages and shop for clothing and household items there; but you can also get pretty good fast food—and show off your class status or ambitions while at it.

And so it is that I’ve spent more time at malls in Bangkok than I would’ve liked, meeting various sources for my story. Today, I even sat in a cab for an hour-and-a-half each way for an interview in a suburb of Bangkok. The director of one of the main NGOs in South East Asia working on human trafficking issues asked that we meet there since they don’t see visitors in their office due to the sensitive nature of their work.

Though hard numbers are difficult to come by, I've been told by several people working in the field that there are scores of groups, NGOs, and agencies working on the issue here. But that hasn’t always been the case. “When we started ten years ago, this kind of work wasn’t fashionable," said the NGO director, lamenting the fact that Thailand attracts a wide range of individuals—not all of them professionals—who want to combat modern-day slavery.

They may be motivated by goodwill, but some of them, he said, follow personal agendas that fail to protect the rights and safety of human and sex trafficking victims. Others, can show little or no evidence of the success of their programs.

Meanwhile, the Thai public may be desensitized by stories about underage girls who are trafficked into sex work. Ads of half-dressed young women abound: on bus stops, magazine covers, shopping mall billboards. And who can say which of these girls willingly do this work, and which don’t?