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Tsunami relief efforts bypass Phuket's sex workers

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PHUKET, Thailand, Dec 26, 2005, 2005 (IPS/GIN via COMTEX) -- Clad in a skimpy black bikini and knee-length boots, the young Thai woman gyrated around the silver pole and blew kisses at the mainly European patrons of the go-go bar.

There was no hint during the show of the pain this cheerful-looking single mother carries from the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami, which ravaged this resort island in southern Thailand and coastal settlements in 11 other countries around the Indian Ocean.

It did not take much prodding for Khai (not her real name) to share her memories of the colossal natural disaster that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Khai breaks down as she talks of how a close friend and fellow bar girl was killed as the giant waves crashed on to the popular Patong Bay beach when the tsunami struck, leaving behind a son barely over a year old.

"I not tell truth to her son," she says in broken English as she sits in her room near a television set on which rests a framed photograph of her dead friend. She often watches the grainy videos of the tsunami, taken by tourists, as a way of dealing with her loss.

Variations of Khai's story can be heard from the multitude of Thai women who work the go-go bars that cater to male tourists looking for a good time in Phuket's red-light areas. One of the bar girls committed suicide in March because she could no longer cope, say her friends.

For Som, another single mother from Thailand's impoverished northeastern region, her monthly earnings plummeted when tourists and pleasure-seekers stayed away from Phuket after the tsunami.

Along with the tales of distress, spoken over blaring music, clinking glasses and peals of laughter, are accounts of courage and sacrifice made by Phuket's famed sex workers in the critical first days after the disaster.

Mam, a mother of two children who had begun working in a Patong bar a few months before the devastation, got together with other women from the bars to cook and care for the dazed survivors until official relief efforts kicked in.

Yet, official events to mark the anniversary of the tsunami in Thailand, where over 8,000 people died -- almost half of them foreign tourists -- refuse to acknowledge the contribution of the sex workers or the fact that many of them were victims of the tsunami.

The official exhibition to mark the tsunami's anniversary, being held in a luxury hotel that faces Patong Bay, excludes drawings by sex workers that convey their feelings about the disaster and its consequences.

"It is as if Phuket has no bars and no sex workers. Maybe that is the news they want to convey," says Liz Hilton, an Australian nurse working for Empower, a Thai non-governmental organization (NGO) championing the rights of the country's sex workers. "No one knows how many sex workers were killed because there is little effort to protect them and document their concerns."

In the neighboring province of Phang Nga, about 50 brothels were destroyed, Hilton confirmed during an interview at Empower's office in Phuket. "One woman told me that Patong today is like a woman with a broken heart. She puts on makeup to go out, but inside she is not OK."

In August, Empower teamed up with a local community radio station to broadcast a weekly program focused on the concerns of the sex workers. But that ended weeks later when the government launched a nationwide crackdown on new community radio stations mushrooming across Thailand.

Empower's staff was then left with little choice but to fan out across the bars of Patong to update the women on current issues. The NGO contacts some 2,000 sex workers every week.

The plight of Thai sex workers affected by the tsunami was highlighted in an October report published by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, a regional women's rights NGO.

"Many women in fisheries and their families, sea gypsy communities, sex workers (and) entertainment workers lack access to information about the assistance, the procedures and documents (for aid)," states the report, "Why Are Women More Vulnerable During Disasters?"

Consequently, these women "do not receive relief food and assistance or compensation from the government," it adds. This holds true for all the sex workers in Patong that Empower deals with, despite overtures being made to Thailand's National Human Rights Commission and accounts shared at tsunami-recovery seminars.

"No help from government for us," says Mam, who has participated in some of the tsunami-related seminars.

Thai authorities say part of the problem stems from the fact that most sex workers are not registered as residents of Phuket. "To get government help they must prove they have local residency and also prove that they were affected," Suranand Vejajiva, a minister in the Thai Prime Minister's office, told IPS. "But we are open to finding ways to help them. The interior ministry has a duty to check their identities."

Women like Mam and Som have little expectation from such assurances, and rely on each other and the strong sense of community that has developed among the sex workers after the tsunami. It includes pooling nightly earnings to help friends send money home to their families.

Copyright (c) 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved.

(C) 2005 Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved

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