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Thailand mulls legal prostitution

November 26, 2003 - 6:05PM

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Garish signs over Bangkok's girlie bars and massage parlours openly advertise an industry comprising an estimated 3 per cent of Thailand's economy.

But prostitution is technically illegal, pays no taxes, fosters police corruption and treats its workers like slaves.

Clearly, the government says, it's time to open a debate on legalising and regulating the sex business.

The Justice Ministry will hold an unprecedented public discussion of its proposal to legalise prostitution and register sex workers.

"We (will) tackle this problem one way or another," Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana said in a recent interview. "Maybe we will approach the problem of prostitution differently than we do now."

Taxing the estimated $US4.3 billion ($A6.0 billion)-a-year trade could give a big boost to government coffers.

Legalisation would give the estimated 200,000 sex workers access to social services, health care and protection from abuse while exposing corruption among the industry's gatekeepers - police, politicians and business owners, proponents say.

"We just want to take care of ourselves," said Noi, a 26-year-old who has worked as a prostitute for two years and asked to be identified only by her nickname. "But we need insurance, we need everything."

She said if prostitution becomes legal "we won't have to hide from the police" and would have recourse against customers who are violent or refuse to pay for their services.

Chantawipa Apisuk, who runs Empower, an educational organisation promoting rights of sex workers, says as long as prostitution is illegal, "the mafia will be the employer and ... the employees will be sex slaves".

Legalisation would also allow the government to tax prostitutes, diverting income from Thailand's massive underground economy, something Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has touted as a possible strategy for boosting the economy.

By the same reasoning, he has already moved to massively expand legalised gambling.

The extent of police exploitation of the sex industry came to light earlier this year when Chuwit Kamolvisit, a sex tycoon and owner of a massage parlour chain in Bangkok, publicly claimed he has been paying millions of dollars in protection money to police.

Chuwit made the government realise that such amounts could, and perhaps should, go into its coffers instead, said Pasuk Phongpaichit, a professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University who has co-written a book on Thailand's illegal economy.

But critics fear that legalising sex trade is not a readymade solution for ending the exploitation of women.

©2003 AAP

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