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International Activism: A Report from Thailand
by Susan Kane

Katrina Anderson and Ginger Norwood, both 26-year-old residents of Seattle, recently returned from Thailand. Katrina spent eight months during 1998 teaching English and computer skills to Thai sex workers through the Empower Center. In 1999, she returned to the Thai-Burmese border to document human rights abuses among the Karen (kah REN), an ethnic minority group fleeing the repressive policies of the Burmese government.

Ginger worked from 1997 to 1999 as the income generation coordinator for Womenıs Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE), a program that helps Karen refugee women market their traditional embroidery. She also helped produce a shadow report for CEDAW (the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), documenting human rights abuses among Karen refugees.

In this interview, they discuss women's struggles to end the Burmese dictatorship, their efforts to unify across ethnic lines, the changing roles of refugees, and the complicated situation of sex workers in Thailand's prostitution industries.

SK: Can you give us some background on the refugee situation?

GINGER: The Karen have been fighting a civil war since 1951. Burma gained independence from England in 1948, and then in 1951, all the major ethnic minority groups declared a war of independence to have autonomous states. The fighting started escalating around 1984, which is when the first major groups of refugees fled over into Thailand. There are about 100,000 or more Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand.

So the Karen refugees have been there since 1984. Most people who know anything about Burma know about Aung San Suu Kyi and the popular democracy uprisings around 1988. These two groups work together. There's definitely a solidarity there against the Burmese government, but it's two very different fights for independence. There's the Burma student democracy movement and thereıs the ethnic minorities who feel like they've been fighting in this democracy movement for 50 years.

SK: Can you talk a little bit about the conditions in the camps? Do people have to stay in the camps or are they allowed to integrate into Thailand?

GINGER: People have to stay in the camps. The camps are huge, by village standards. They look like very overgrown, very densely populated villages. One of the camps has 35,000 people, one has 16,000. Those are the two biggest. Most people do live in individual houses, made of bamboo and thatch. They have their own school systems, there are lot of churches and mosques. The Karen were heavily missionized in Burma, so there's a much higher Christian conversion rate among the Karen than among the Burmese, and churches play a very prominent role in camp life.

SK: Can you tell us about the situation of women in the camps? What was WEAVE trying to accomplish?

GINGER: WEAVE was the only NGO that worked exclusively with women. They worked only with women because, for one thing, they work with weavers and embroiderers, who are women. But they are also guided by the idea that women use money more communally.

When women have economic freedom, the community benefits from that. There's almost no economy in the camps, and so gender roles inside families have been really turned on their heads. Men don't have a farm to go out and bring crops in, nor do they have any work to bring home, and often women are the medics and the teachers and, in this income generation project, women doing the weaving. In a lot of families, women have the economic power.

SK: Do you think this influenced power relations in the family? Did it change people's conception of what it means to be a Karen woman or a Karen man?

GINGER: I think positively for women and negatively for men. It created a lot of tension in some families but also gave women a power that they didn't traditionally feel.

But there were so many dynamics that changed. The education system in the camps is much stronger than inside the Karen state [in Burma]. All girls in the refugee camps go to school, whereas traditionally in villages, girls might stay home with younger siblings or to help around the house or in the fields. From before kindergarten in the camps, kids are learning Karen, Burmese, English, Math, Science. Considering the conditions, it's a very rigorous educational system that goes all the way past high school. The schooling creates something to do, in a place where there's just nothing to do.

SK: And then, what do they do with all of this education? They can't go work in Thailand ...

GINGER: Which is the hard question, and the question you don't ask people who are graduating. The very smartest kids become medics or teachers.

KATRINA: But I think that there's always this idea that you need to be educated so that when there is a democratic revolution in Burma you will have an educated class to assume leadership roles.

SK: So, people believe a democratic revolution will happen and that theyıll return to Burma?

KATRINA: Absolutely. Very actively.

SK: What do you think of the way the media here portrays the situation?

KATRINA: The way most people know about Burma here, if they do know about it, is through the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and who is the matriarch of Burma. Very rarely do I ever hear in the mainstream press any honest critiques what it means to be struggling as a woman against this very powerful regime of all men.

I feel what's totally ignored in the press here are the efforts of women to mobilize for their communities. Most Burmese groups that are organizing are composed of men. These groups are very factionalized, but among the women there's some very unifying organizing happening.

GINGER: I think the mainstream media rarely picks up on the refugee issues, and doesn't pick up on women's issues particularly. Traditionally, men have had more access to education, men speak better English, men are getting their stories out and men are promoting the Burmese democracy movement and the Karen revolution in a way that women's groups have not been able to because they could not reach international media.

Women leaders from all the ethnic minority groups formed this umbrella organization called the Women's League of Burma. Their first meeting was just to talk openly as women from all these different groups who have histories of mistrust--just to talk, just to meet each other. They've had several meetings now, and have set up a common women's platform, to do exactly what I was saying, to bring a women's voice into a more international arena and remind people that there are other women besides Aung San Suu Kyi doing political work.

SK: Do they have a different agenda from the men? Do you see a feminist agenda? When there is democracy, will there also be equality for women?

GINGER: There's definitely the assumption on the part of men's groups and even to a degree among the National League for Democracy [Aung San Suu Kyi's group] that we'll get the revolution first and then we'll bring in women's issues and ethnic minority issues.

SK: We know historically that this is never a good plan.

GINGER: Right. What's so powerful about this Women's League of Burma is that it's ethnic women who are saying, "No, we're going to help lead the revolution. And we're going to do that because we're actually talking to each other and no one else is doing that."

KATRINA: They are doing things that men have not done in 50 years. They've just been organizing in the past couple of years, and they've reached a point that men have not gotten to and maybe will not get to.

GINGER: And I think that a lot of the reason they've been able to work so quickly is that they've been really honest. In the first meeting, there were ethnic Burman women and ethnic minority women, and it was publicly acknowledged that the two groups didn't trust each other. The minority women felt like they were overshadowed by Burman woman, who have had more access to be heard internationally. The Burman women felt like they were being very inclusive and had no idea that there was this distrust. So they talked about it openly and they dealt with it. In all these other factionalized groups, it's just something that's shoved under the carpet in the name of "we're all working towards democracy.²

SK: So, they are hopefully laying the groundwork for a true democracy, rather than just trying to get the bad people out of power.

KATRINA: And it's certainly very encouraging that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement, is a woman and a feminist. I don't know whether she uses that word to describe herself, but she believes in women's empowerment.

SK: Is there anything feminists here in the United States can do to influence the situation in a positive way?

GINGER: The United States has sanctions on Burma, which I support and the National League for Democracy [NLD] supports, and Aung San Suu Kyi supports. These arenıt like U.S. sanctions against other places, which have very negative effects. The NLD says that all of the money that comes into the country goes straight into the hands of the military, so sanctions are very effective in draining the budget of the military. Theyıre not having an effect on ordinary people.

KATRINA: Also, the democracy movement has asked people not to travel to Burma because you have to pay a $300 entry fee for the visa, and all the money you dispense there eventually ends up in the hands of the government, not benefiting people.

But all things said and done, the United States has a more helpful policy towards Burma than many countries in the world. There's something to be said for that.

SK: Okay, let's talk about Thai sex workers. You worked for nine months with Empower.

KATRINA: Empower is foundation based in Chaing Mai, Bangkok, and the centers of the sex industries of Thailand. Itıs different from other feminist organizations in Thailand because it seeks to empower women to make their own decision about their own lives, and it takes no stand on the moral issues of sex work.

Most women in the sex industry are not well educated and come from poorer families. Empower provides opportunities for women to improve their skills and have access to education. A lot of feminists would confront me and say to me, "Why are you working for sex workers, why are you teaching them English, just so they can communicate better with their clients?" And in some ways, yes! Definitely, that's what a lot of women use those language skills for. But I feel that as a feminist, I can't say to a woman, ³I'm going to teach you English skills only so you can get out of this trade.²

Many of the women working the Thai sex industry are Burmese, whether ethnically Burman or minorities from Burma. They are either trafficked into the sex industry or they come because there are no economic opportunities in Burma at all and families either encourage or pressure them to go. There are so many different levels of what women do in the sex industry, and most of it depends on where they're from and whether they've willingly entered into it or whether they were coerced into it.

SK: How do those two factors affect sex work exactly?

KATRINA: Well, most Thai women who knew about the sex industry before they entered into it went into it for economic reasons. Obviously it's more complicated than this, but their choices might be working in a factory 20 hours in horrible, horrible working conditions, or hanging out with their friends, in a bar, a few hours a night and sleeping with men or working as escorts, having a relative amount of autonomy and making just as much, if not more money. For a lot of women who enter into sex work, it offers opportunities they never could have imagined. It's exciting, they get to be taken places, they get to spend time with people they enjoy.

There are also women who are from Burma who are 13 years old, get trafficked in by these con artists who trick their parents, trick the village elders into believing that they are marrying these women, give them a bride price, take them back to Thailand, and sell them to brothels where they're chained to the beds.

And every level in between those two extremes exists there. Some of it's very invisible, like the chained bed brothel. Then you see Thai women on the arms of western men on every street in Bangkok. So sex work is visible, invisible, but it's omnipresent.

SK: So, the difference between the woman chained to the bed, and the woman for whom it's an exciting alternative to factory work, is consent?

KATRINA: Well, for the women who end up in brothels where it's a complete human rights nightmare, that's usually the result of extreme poverty. If they're Thai, they've usually ended up there because they've been tricked by someone. But if theyıre Burmese, it's much more complicated because it becomes an illegal migration issue. These women are completely stranded, on their own, usually in debt by the time they get there because they have to pay for their transportation, pay their trafficker, and even pay their room and board in the brothel. They're basically slaves. They have no idea even where they are in Thailand. They can't speak the language.

The question that is of most concern to sex workers rights groups in Thailand is what to do about the migrant issue. Because if people are Thai citizens, there are some modes of recourse, but if you are an illegal alien in a country that does not recognize sex work as legal profession, you have no options.

SK: Wait, sex work is illegal in Thailand?

KATRINA: Sex work is illegal in Thailand. Even though it runs the economy. The Minister of Tourism said in public after the Asian financial crises of 1997 that the "entertainment industry" (aka sex work) was what saved the Thai economy from complete and total collapse. The Thai officials aren't stupid, they know what's going on, and they're not going to change what seems to be working.

SK: Does it ever get prosecuted?

KATRINA: It's rare, but in extreme forms of abuse, there can be some help for women. It's happened, but you can probably count those instances on one hand. They'd never touch a tourist, they sometimes goes after the brothel owner, but usually that would happen if the brothel owner has somehow pissed off the police. Because they're all in cahoots, all the police take kickbacks from the brothel owners and the nightclub owners, that's how it works.

SK: So, the main effect of this, as it is in this country, is that women who are in sex work have no legal protection.

KATRINA: They have no legal protection whatsoever. All the feminist organizing that happens in Thailand is somehow connected to the sex worker issue, whether implicitly or explicitly. And frankly, the really out-there, out-front activists in Thailand tend to be sex workers, because they're the ones who are willing to take risks. They don't care who they offend. They're the kind of woman who defies the Thai stereotype of being a submissive, behind-the-scenes woman. They really shake things up.

SK: Let's talk a little bit about western feminists working in developing countries. What does a relationship that is mutually beneficial where people are really treated equally look like?

GINGER: I think what it looks like when itıs done well is a Western woman going

into a situation, say, going into the Karen community slowly and mindfully. Something that's very important in the Karen community is just that you stay there and prove that you're going to be around for a while. It's important to listen to women, and learn what they are working on, and what they feel they need.

I think that there are very tangible things that Western feminists can offer to women's movement in other countries. With the Karen, what was needed were things like learning how to use the internet, learning how to use the media more effectively, enhancing English skills so they could learn how to write grants, so they didn't have to go through NGOs. But it took a long time, and building a trust that you wanted to be there as friend and as ally, working together. Because the assumption is that you want to be there as the teacher, throwing out your information.

SK: What's the difference between the feminism you came with and the feminism you left with?

KATRINA: My idea of feminism was that you can envision and create your own identity. Feminism for me was an individual choice and philosophy. I really didn't have a model for what a collective idea of feminism could be until I went to Thailand. Among the Karen women activists that we met, there was just this intense bond with the community that takes precedence over everything else. No Karen woman would envision her own future that would in any way isolate her from the community nor would she put herself and her own ambition above the collective needs. There is this idea that women are the ones who are able to create community; I think that's what feminism is there.

Women are the ones who are trying to figure out how this new generation is going to live together, being away from their land, away from their villages and their normal social systems. It's the women who are emerging as leaders. Yet they still want those traditional social systems in many ways because those roles are comforting. Yet, suddenly, they're also comfortable living as ten, fifteen women in a large collective house, instead of living with their parents until they get married. These things are appealing to them. Yet I don't think they would ever see that as a rejection of where they came from.

SK: You've both mentioned computers or internet technology. I'm curious about how you think the internet has affected the people you worked with.

GINGER: For the Karen refugees, isolation is the biggest frustration. Through the internet and email, people in town are able to communicate with other groups on the border, and with the Free Burma Coalition in the United States. They may have friends who have resettled in the United States that they haven't heard from them in ten years, and suddenly they can talk to them. Also, the internet has given women who have moved into town to be part of this women's group a lot of power and leadership in the refugee communities. People in the camp don't have access to technology or to computers. So those who do are held in high esteem. They're the guardians of the information; they have access to the email.

KATRINA: I think the implications for women are enormous, because as we were saying before, the gatekeepers of information in Burma have historically been men. Now suddenly, a woman can go to a computer just as easily as a man and upload whatever information she wants and boom, it's giving her a voice that she wouldn't have had otherwise.

Susan Kane is the Women Studies librarian at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Useful websites:

Free Burma Coalition

Karen Human Rights Group

Empower (Thai Sex Worker Organization)

Collection of Asian Maps

Beyond Multiple Choice | Reframing Women's History
Silence! Let Eminem Rage

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