Worsening Economy Fuels Prostitution In Burma

Cherry and Kay Kay walk into room Number Two of a Rangoon karaoke bar, where a man waits alone for them on a brown leather sofa.

"Come on, girls. Sing, please," he says, as they flick the karaoke machine to a Burma folk song they hope he likes.

The scene may not be uncommon in many parts of Asia, but was until recently rare here in isolated Burma, where economic desperation is increasingly pushing young women into a sex trade that hides behind the facade of karaoke bars and massage parlours.

At the bars, known locally as KTVs for "karaoke television," young women in their late teens and early 20s entertain clients in private air-conditioned rooms furnished with sofas and karaoke equipment.

Waiters enter only when customers order food and drinks, or if the women ring a bell to alert the management that a client is getting out of hand.

Workers at KTVs say sex is not necessarily on offer, but they add that in the private rooms boundaries can be vague.

"It's hard to control men in this kind of room," 22-year-old Kay Kay says.

"They are so wild when they get drunk. I need to hold both his hands to protect myself. Sometimes I need to ring the bell to call for help from the waiters," she says.

Customers vary from teenagers to adults. Sometimes they come with friends, occasionally even with family, to venues that blur the line between casual entertainment and brothels.

Cherry and Kay Kay are among 20 girls working in their KTV bar, located near Rangoon's landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the Buddhist country's holiest shrines. Ostensibly they are hostesses, paid to keep customers company, encourage them to buy drinks, and to sing for them.

Prostitution is illegal in Burma, but it began to take root underground after the ruling junta abandoned socialism for a market economy in 1996.

Myanmar is one of the world's poorest countries, where even urban professionals scrape out a living on less than a dollar a day. Salaries for civil servants, for example, start at about 20,000 kyats (about $17.50) a month.

Many industries have been decimated by decades of economic mismanagement by the military, coupled with the effects of Western sanctions imposed over the regime's failure to make good on promises of democratic reforms.

Cherry says she decided to work in the karaoke bar after quitting her low-wage job at a garment factory.

The eldest daughter in her family, Cherry was taken out of school before she reached her teens so her family could afford to send her brothers to school.

She then started working in the factory, but quit after discovering that she could earn more in tips in one night at the karaoke bar than she earned in a month at her old job.

Cherry and Kay Kay say they both grew up in broken families, and have not told any of their relatives about their new jobs.

"I didn't tell my mom that I'm working at KTV. She thinks that I'm working as a sales girl in a supermarket," Cherry says.

Many of the girls working in Rangoon's KTV bars have come from Burma's impoverished countryside in search of better opportunities in the city.

The bar that employs Cherry and Kay Kay provides them with free room and board, and a base salary of 20,000 kyats, or about $17.50.

"The basic salary is similar to what I earned at the factory, but here we get tips from customers," Cherry says. "Sometimes we earn 30,000 kyats ($27.00) in one night just from the tips."

The women are not allowed to leave the bar before its 2 am closing time, and then they are driven back to the hostel.

In a nation that prides itself on the glories of its past and its literary culture, the growth of the entertainment industry has caused some public soul-searching.

One poet, who wrote about the trend in a poem called "Rangoon Nights," said poverty was not the only culprit driving young women to their after-hours jobs.

"As many of them are uneducated and don't value their life, so they eventually end up in this community," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But Wine, who worked as a cashier in a music restaurant, said that even some professional women are turning to the nightlife for second jobs to help make ends meet.

"The girls working in our shop include schoolgirls, nurses who are available to work at night and university graduates," Wine said, adding that she started working at the restaurant after twice failing her high school graduation exam and being unable to find any other job.

"Many friends of mine work in KTVs or music pubs while also taking university correspondence courses," she said.

The stigma attached to the bar girls remains strong, and many parents would rather see their children join the millions of Myanmar migrants heading overseas to search for work.

"My youngest daughter wanted to work in a KTV bar. I did not allow her, because once she takes the step of working there, it becomes very easy for her to become a commercial sex worker. It's very hard to control," said Ei, a 59-year-old mother of two daughters.

Ei says that like many families here, hers is struggling to survive. But she would rather see her daughters try to find work overseas than let them work in a karaoke bar.

Cherry and Kay Kay say they are happy they make enough money to support their families without having to leave the country.

"I can support my family well. One of my brothers will graduate from university very soon," says Cherry.

"I don't need to work very hard like I did in the factory but you know customers treat us just as bar girls, they look down on us. The reputation of a bar girl is not so good in this community."

Rich Asian Men Turn To Poor Nations For Their Brides

Changing attitudes about love and marriage in rich Asian countries such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are pushing many desperate bachelors to seek out brides in other, poorer nations around the region.

Many Asian men, particularly those in rural areas, tend to seek traditional wives who will stay home, doing chores and raising children, says Mika Toyota, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, and other experts who study the region.

An economic boom in recent decades means women have options their mothers didn't. Better educated, they can have careers - and opt to stay single until Prince Charming shows up, if he ever does.

"Most Japanese women would prefer to live and work in the city," says Jeff Kingston, author of Japan's Quiet Transformation. "A guy out there in the boonies . has a tough job selling the wonders of being a farmer's wife."

Instead, the men increasingly seek women from countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines, where income levels are much lower. The practice has led to some complaints of abuse and exploitation, particularly when the unions are arranged by third-party brokers, although some couples say their marriages are as happy as any other.

The men "have more bargaining power" when they travel to poorer countries, says Gavin Jones, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute. "Some of these men are looking for the sorts of women they can't find (in their own countries) - women to wash their clothes, submissive women."

The trend marks a significant shift in countries that have long been ethnically homogenous. Some local South Korean governments, eager to improve the birthrate in an aging country, even subsidize trips abroad for men seeking foreign wives.

In South Korea, the number of marriages in which one spouse is non-Korean tripled from 2001 to 2006, the U.S. State Department reports. Overall, one in eight South Korean marriages involve a foreigner, according to the Korean Statistics Office. In rural areas such as Gyeonggi, along the North Korean border, the figure rises past 30%.

In Japan, the percentage of mixed marriages rose from 1.88% in 1986 to 6.1% in 2006, according to the government's population survey that year.

Until a few decades ago, marriages in these countries were often arranged by local matchmakers who "would show pictures to a man and say, 'Which one do you want?' ," Kingston says.

These days, cultural and economic changes mean that "media and books tell everyone the wonders of love marriage," he says.

More than half of Japanese women in their late 20s are single, up from about 30% two decades ago. A survey by the Japanese insurance industry a couple of years ago found that most single women ages 35 to 54 have no plans to marry.

Marriage brokers charge up to $20,000 to fly lonely men to places such as Vietnam to inspect potential wives, says Mary Kim, vice president of the Inchon Women's Hotline, which offers language training and counseling to foreign brides.

"They meet each other in the morning and get married in the afternoon," Kim says. "Then they go to a hotel. It's a very abnormal way to get married."

In one newspaper ad, a South Korean broker advertises "very beautiful" Vietnamese women: "100% virgins with health certificates for husbands to check."

"It's a different kind of prostitution," Kim says.

South Korea passed a law in December cracking down on unscrupulous marriage brokers, imposing jail sentences for those involved in the sex trade.

However, Kim says, foreign brides are often too confused and frightened to complain to South Korean police when they are beaten at home.

The appeal for the women involved is usually economic, at least at first. Rachelle Lim earned $210 a month as a sales clerk in greater Manila until she was paired with a South Korean suitor. They met on a Friday, were married that Sunday, and she flew to South Korea when her visa came through three months later.

She didn't know what she was getting into. Her new home was cold, the language difficult. The pungent cuisine took some getting used to. And her husband's job as a factory manager kept him away from home six days a week.

"I cannot say I am happy now," says Lim, 29. "Sometimes I think I want to go back to the Philippines."

Culture clashes are frequent, says Fe Gimarino-Kim, a Filipina who married a South Korean in 1996.

In the Philippines, women often run the household and enjoy their own careers. In South Korea, "the man runs things. If you're a Korean wife, you must serve your husband."

Money is often a problem, too: Many foreign brides want to send money to their parents and siblings back home; if their husbands refuse, they sometimes do so surreptitiously. "They keep secrets and send money to their families," Gimarino-Kim says.

Gimarino-Kim formed the Filipino-Korean Spouses Association to lobby on behalf of foreign brides. Four years ago, she successfully lobbied for a law ensuring South Korean citizenship for foreign brides who get divorced after being beaten by their husbands.

Some mixed couples try hard to make their marriages work. South Korean autoworker Kang Ho Kyu, 40, doesn't speak a common language with his Filipina wife of six months, Marilon Royo - so they often communicate using an electronic English-Korean translator.

"We try to work things out," Kang says as his wife, seated next to him, breaks into a beaming smile.

Gimarino-Kim says she's one of the lucky ones, too. She has been in a happy marriage with a South Korean for more than a decade: "It's a gamble," she says. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

Lisa Ann Taylor Puts Her Mansion On Sale For $1.2 million


Life has not been easy for Lisa Ann Taylor since her guilty plea deal to several charges and her sentencing to seven years of probation.

The former Penthouse pet who had been accused of running a brothel out of her million-dollar home has put the mansion up for sale.

Lisa Ann Taylor has put the red-brick mansion, which sits in an exclusive suburban Atlanta subdivision, up for sale for $1.2 million.

Taylor, who has also performed under the name Melissa Wolf, became known as the Mansion Madam after being arrested along with another woman last year on prostitution and drug charges. As part of a plea deal, Taylor was sentenced to seven years probation and fined $150,000. If the fine isn't paid before Oct. 10, Gwinnett County can seize her home.

But Taylor said Tuesday that outcome is not likely.

"It's a good thing I put all that money away all those years ago," Taylor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Taylor said she owns several other properties, including a house in Canada and a condominium worth more than $400,000.

Taylor built the five-and-one-half bath home in the 1990's for about $500,000. At the height of the market last year, it was assessed at more than $1 million by Gwinnett County tax assessors.

Darrell Bacon, Taylor's real estate agent, described her home as "an entertainer's paradise."

And so far, Taylor's house has not drawn much attention from gawkers looking to sight-see in Taylor's bedrooms, Bacon said.

"We don't have any spectators. It's been rather pleasant," Bacon said. "We've had some offers, but very few people are getting what I would call strong offers. Everyone is looking for a deal."

Last November, prosecutors dropped prostitution and drug charges against Taylor's co-defendant, Nicole Probert.