Myanmar’s Young Women Take to Prostitution as Economy Collapses
"Come on, girls. Sing, please," he says, as they flick the karaoke machine to a Myanmar 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 Myanmar, 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 Yangon'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 Myanmar, 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 (16 dollars).
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 mum that I'm working at KTV. She thinks that I'm working as a sales girl in a supermarket," Cherry says.
-- 'Our girls even include university graduates' --
Many of the girls working in Yangon's KTV bars have come from Myanmar'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 18 dollars.
"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 (25 dollars) in one night just from the tips."
The women are not allowed to leave the bar before its 2:00 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 "Yangon 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 told AFP, 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."