Friday, May 1, 2015

Difficult Discoveries: Western Influence in Southeast Asia

This is one of the more painful posts that I have had to write. It is one thing to see the problem of sexual exploitation first hand. It is entirely a more difficult experience when you begin to connect the dots - only to find out that your own country's presence in a nation has exacerbated the problem. There is a sense of shame that accompanies this realization. Unfortunately, this is the conclusion I have reached after nearly two months in Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines - the West has done more harm than good in Southeast Asia - especially in the area of sexual exploitation. Those are difficult words to write, but I cannot allow my belonging to one of the countries at fault to silence or blind me.

I do want to make a few things very clear before discussing the problems of western influence in Southeast Asia:

  1. The Southeast Asian countries are not blameless either. Governments and people of power within each are often complicit in the sexual exploitation of women and children. However, it is important to understand how the West has taken advantage of an already broken system, and the most vulnerable usually receive the brunt of the exploitation.
  2. The U.S. and other Western countries are currently attempting to address these issues. However, the past can never be fully undone, and often these efforts are underfunded or poorly planned.
  3. Countries that aren't typically considered the "West" - like Japan and Korea - also contribute to this problem.

My theory for why these particular countries seem to receive the brunt of problematic western influence has to do with the combat that has occurred in this region. This region has been stuck in the crosshairs of global conflicts for decades. Not only has this lead to some instability, but it also has introduced a western presence that doesn't always live up to its "peacekeeping" intentions.

Furthermore, there are particular past and present trends in each country that are creating an environment where sexual exploitation is common and unchecked:

Westernization in Thailand

I've heard Thailand described as "Europe's Hawaii," and my experiences certainly confirmed this stereotype. As more tourists and investors pour in, the more the country must modernize to meet the demands of western visitors. In cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it is difficult to get a sense of what Thai culture really is. The country would certainly suffer economically without the influx of tourism.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with tourism. However, most tourism is accompanied by an increased demand for prositution. Because there is a lot of money to be made in this 'industry,' the most vulnerable are often taken advantage of, and the already well-off increase their wealth. Also because this country is so reliant on money coming in through sex tourism, there is incentive for police and the government to protect tourists and foreign business owners - not the women working in bars and strip clubs. This further increases their vulnerability.

Beyond this, the increased presence of foreigners in the country perpetuates a cycle. Because so many foreigners expect the country to be highly sexualized and modern, the culture has changed to become so. I talked with individuals who had been living in Thailand for decades, and the changes they have seen in this area just in the last five years are unbelievable. As the country becomes more sexualized, more foreigners assume that they are simply taking part in what is already inherent in the culture - not a product of their presence. The cycle continues and those already vulnerable have to deal with the consequences.

Colonization in Cambodia

This country represents a greater trend that rears its head in many countries that I have visited. However, Cambodia's relatively recent freedom from colonization makes this trend even more evident. In countries that were colonized, the criminal justice system is not structured in a way where the poor and vulnerable receive protection. You must pay for security in countries like Cambodia - it is not a human right.

This can be traced back to the colonial days, when the foreigners did not rely on local structures for protection - they brought or bought their own. When these countries were granted freedom, the structure never changed. Instead of European colonials paying for protection, the wealthy nationals did. Once again, the poor and vulnerable were left behind. In the case of Cambodia, the French colonialists built high walls around their homes, hired security guards, and had the option to leave if circumstances got dangerous. When the French left Cambodia in 1953, not much changed for most women, children, and anyone in poverty.

I think this is a brilliant way to understand current problems that arise in attempts to enforce laws about trafficking or exploitation. I can't take credit for it, however. Gary Haugen, president and founder of IJM introduces this theory in his book, "The Locust Effect," which I highly recommend. If you don't have time for the full book, check out his recent TED Talk where he summarizes this theory and other topics here.

Militarization in the Philippines

Japan occupied the Philippines from 1942 to 1945 during World War II. The army's presence in the country initiated a historical legacy of the exploitation of women by foreign soldiers. The experiences of Japanese "comfort women" have been well documented. Essentially, women in countries like the Philippines, Korea, and China were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers while these countries were militarily occupied.

Unfortunately, the defeat of Japanese forces in the Philippines did not bring about great change in this area. Immediately after World War II, an area in the north of the Philippines was established as a naval and air base for the U.S. military. This was used extensively during the Vietnam War. Even after troops were withdrawn in 1991, the military continued to use parts of the Philippines for training exercises. In 1991, the "Visiting Forces Agreement" came into force, meaning that U.S. military personnel are not held responsible by the Filippino government for crimes committed in country. Instead, the U.S. government has power to refuse or detain arrest of soldiers for various crimes - including sexual assault.

Because of the large presence of U.S. military and retired personnel in the country, hundreds of bars (covers for illegal prostitution) exist near the bases. Most of these only allow foreign customers in - most of which have some level of immunity through the U.S. government. I hope it is obvious how dangerous this situation is for women and girls in the country who may be forced or pressured to work in the bars by their families. It is very difficult to process this kind of information when you are grateful to the hundreds of honorable men who have sacrificed for your country and freedom. However, there is another side to the presence of U.S. forces in countries like the Philippines.

Possible Solutions

I recognize all of this is pretty discouraging. It can certainly feel like a hopeless fight at times. However, I believe that there are possible solutions to this problem. Here are a few of my thoughts for large scale changes that can help (besides direct assistance to victims, which is always necessary):

  • Traditional aid (sending money for projects) is rarely effective in these situations. The receiving governments are often too corrupt or dysfunctional to use the funding in a productive way.
  • There must be more legal consequences for western tourists or military personnel that take advantage of the current system by soliciting a minor or committing sexual assault.
  • Governments seeking to help can help to build capacity of the law enforcement or justice systems within a country. This can be done through trainings or collaborative casework.




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