BANGKOK — Sex workers and NGOs said Thursday the police have taken the right step by agreeing to adopt a more “humane” approach when arresting suspects on prostitution charges.
In what they called a “round one” victory, sex work advocates toasted (non-alcoholic) punch to celebrate new protocols which ban sexual intercourse during sting operations, parading sex workers in front of the press, and allowing media inside raided venues.
Passports of foreign sex workers will also no longer be stamped with a message saying they were arrested for prostitution, according to a police memo unveiled today at a panel discussion held in Bangkok.
“Stamping passports of foreign sex workers is against their freedom to travel,” activist Mai Chanta said.
Under the previous system, anybody caught in an anti-prostitution raid could no longer re-enter Thailand or travel to countries where prostitution is a crime.
Mai also hopes the new measures will put an end to the media’s habit of publishing photos of sex workers when they are arrested. Some moral vigilante Facebook pages even release names, frontal pictures, and IDs of sex workers in an attempt to shame them, she said.
“Many media organizations take photos without asking for permission and without caring for their feelings,” the activist said.
Although prostitution is widely practiced in Thailand, it is illegal under a 1996 law which carries a one-month jail term. There are about 200,000 to 300,000 sex workers in the Kingdom, according to activist groups.
The law is rarely enforced, but raids on brothels continue from time to time, often with media in tow. Mai said the police and media cause further emotional harm when reporters are allowed to ask sex workers inappropriate questions after raids.
Leading the call for the decent treatment of sex workers is the advocacy group Empower Foundation. The network has been working with the National Human Rights Commission for years to pressure police into respecting the basic rights of sex workers during arrests.
Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit said she made recommendations back in February, but the breakthrough came in June when the national police issued new protocols to its forces.
At today’s event, Angkhana also showed a police memo dated June 26 which bans officers from having sex with suspects in sting operations. The practice has been repeatedly condemned by various NGOs as a breach of civil rights.
The letter also stated that police must strictly “inform [sex workers] of their rights” and allow them to contact their relatives and a lawyer.
“Interrogation or questioning… must not be conducted using questions that add emotional injury or hurt the person’s feelings,” the letter stated.
Anyone kept as a witness should also be housed in accommodation appropriate to a witness and not in a detention center.
But it is unclear whether the memo will be actually implemented. Previous orders by the police and government to stop parading suspects in news conferences and “crime reenactments” have often gone unheeded.
Three female police officers were in the audience at today’s discussion. One of them said arrests will have to continue as long as prostitution remains outlawed.
But Empower Foundation on Thursday vowed to push for the eventual decriminalization of sex work.
“We must forge an understanding in society. We don’t sell ourselves, we sell a service!” foundation activist and sex worker Sirisak Chaithet said at the event. “Once it’s done, we say bye. It’s not like they are buying our hands or mouths or will cut them.”
He continued, “Our dignity as a human being is still intact.”
Additional writing Teeranai Charuvastra