Thailand is a great country. Tens of thousands of people have also discovered that. It is the “Land of Smiles” with beautiful beaches, pleasant temperature, good food, and friendly people. It is not difficult to fall in love with Thailand and its people. But like every other country, there is a flipside. Prostitution is illegal, but nevertheless it is a billion dollar industry which operates openly. Seven out of ten men who come to Thailand buy sex. About the same proportions apply for Thai men. There are factors in Thai culture and religion which feed this destructive industry. But there are also Christian business people who offer a way out from the sex industry by providing jobs with dignity.
Are We Indifferent?
On our first evening in Pattaya, a major tourist town on the East coast, people could witness something horrific on the street. It happened openly: slaves were being brought to work. Nobody reacted except my wife. Three young beautiful Russian women with two guards were taken to the brothel for slave work. They were victims of trafficking. With a trained eye, based on years of experience of work among prostitutes and victims of trafficking, my wife understood what was taking place. Young women from former Soviet Union, many from Uzbekistan, are sold as sex slaves in Thailand.
Sometimes we ask ourselves why Germans didn’t react when Jews were brutally and by force taken from their homes, marched down the streets to trucks which brought them to concentration camps. We ask: Why were people so indifferent? But the same question applies today, and should be asked of the thousands of people from every country who cannot avoid seeing what is going on in Thailand. Behind the friendly Thai smiles you may find slavery and human misery. Are we indifferent?
Dedicated to Prostitution
The bulk of the prostitutes in Thailand are Thai girls from the northeast provinces. Most have no more than a sixth grade education. The vast majority have two things in common. First, many have been dedicated—even as babies—to gods and spirits, through a religious rite based on a mix of Buddhism and animism. Second, daughters are expected to support their parents, to be their pension scheme as it were. Sons, on the other hand, spend a few months as Buddhist monks and through that they invest in the parents’ next life. Thus they are not responsible for the welfare of the parents in this life. So parents and relatives send and sell their daughters to work as prostitutes in cities like Bangkok, Phuket, and Pattaya.
“We work with these girls and it is a lot more complex than just dealing with psychological traumas and difficult socioeconomic issues,” says Susan, a well-educated therapist from the USA. “We are dealing with spiritual realities; some may call it demons, but regardless of labels, one cannot assist these girls to full restoration unless you recognize and deal with these spiritual issues.”
Susan volunteers with a team that has worked in Bangkok for the last four years. Their mission is to restore people—socially, spiritually, economically, emotionally, and physically. To that end they have started a business called Nightlight. Today, eighty women (either former prostitutes or those at risk) are employed. The company is based on Christian values, and prayer is an integral part of the business.
“We don’t require anyone to convert, but we are not hiding who we are and what we believe,” says Katie, a designer of the jewelry the women manufacture. “But we have seen an increasing number of women be totally transformed as they become followers of Jesus.”
About half the women have started quite a unique church. The leaders and members are mostly former slaves of the sex industry. To them, the Christian faith is a life-transforming power, not just a set of theoretical biblical statements.
When you work with prostitutes and trafficking victims, you must be able to answer the question: Out of prostitution, rescued from the sex slave trade, but into what? You need to be able to offer a job with dignity as a sustainable alternative. Here, Christian business people hold keys in combating today’s slavery. There is a definite need for more Christian entrepreneurs with a vision for this.
Need for Cultural Change
Here also lie important issues of culture and a need for changes of culture. Many in Europe and elsewhere naïvely believe that all cultures are equally good, albeit different, and that all should be neutrally accommodated without any cultural custom being challenged.
Sometimes, and sometimes rightly so, Christian mission has been accused of cultural imperialism and imposition. Mistakes will always be made in a cultural encounter, but there are numerous examples all over the world of how the Christian message has transformed cultural norms and customs which have been destructive. The religious practices which undergird oppression of women, and cultural norms which reinforce the sex industry, cannot be accepted. There is a definite need in Thailand for a constructive critique of religion and culture in this respect. But there is also a need for life-transforming alternatives based on human dignity and rights. Nightlight provides just that through its business.