One area of the economy where Cyclone Nargis caused prices to drop
RANGOON — THEY’re known fancifully as nya-hmwe-pan, or “fragrant flowers of the night,” although the reality of after-dark life for Rangoon’s increasing number of prostitutes isn’t so romantic.
The number of “fragrant flowers” walking the streets and working the bars of Burma’s major city has reportedly soared since Cyclone Nargis ripped into the Irrawaddy delta and tore families apart. The arrival of desperate young women ready to trade their bodies for the equivalent of two or three dollars has depressed Rangoon prices still further, and the new girls on the block face not only police harassment but the hostility of the “old timers.”
One afternoon in central Rangoon, I went hunting for an interview subject in one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Bogyoke Aung San Street. I didn’t have far to look.
Outside the Thwin cinema, a woman in her forties approached me with the offer of a girl of my choice. She was accompanied by about nine heavily made-up young women, ranging in age from the mid-teens to their thirties.
I chose a girl in her twenties and took her to a brothel posing as a guesthouse, making it clear to her that I only wanted to obtain an interview. She agreed.
The “guesthouse” rented its 30 or so rooms to “short stay” guests, charging 2,000 kyat (US $1.6) for an hour and 5,000 kyat ($4) for the night.
Its corridors reeked of cigarette smoke, alcohol and cheap perfume. Scantily dressed women lounged beyond open doorways, waiting for customers. I was reminded of similar scenes from foreign movies.
I rented Room 21, and once inside the young woman introduced herself as Mya Wai. For the next hour or so we talked about her life and her job.
“There are three of us in my family. The other two are my mother and younger brother. My father passed away a long time ago. My mother is bedridden and my brother is also sick. I have to work in this business to support my family,” she told me.
She had not come to Rangoon to escape the aftermath of the cyclone, she said, but lived near the night market of Rangoon’s Kyeemyindaing Township.
Mya Wai described vividly the daily struggle to survive—“I need to make at least 10,000 kyat ($8.50) a day to cover the family food bill, medicines and travel costs.”
She started out at the age of 16 working in a karaoke bar and took up full-time prostitution about one year later.
“My job in the karaoke bar was to sit with the customers, pour their drinks and sing along with them. Sure, they would touch me, but I had to tolerate that.”
She earned a basic monthly salary of 15,000 kyat ($12.50), plus a share of the tips and an additional 400 kyat (33 cents) an hour when entertaining a customer. It wasn’t enough to support herself and her family, so she moved to a massage parlor on War Dan Street in Rangoon’s Lanmadaw Township.
“A couple of days after I started work there, the owner sent me to a hotel, saying I could earn 30,000 kyat ($22.50) from a customer there.”
She was still a virgin and described that experience as “my first night in hell.” Her client was Chinese, a man in his 40s with sexual demands that were strange and painful for young Mya Wai.
“He treated me like an animal,” she said. “I couldn’t walk properly for one week. But I’m used to all that now.”
The interview over, it was dark when we left the guesthouse, and I was alarmed to see two uniformed police officers in the entrance. Soliciting for prostitution is illegal in Burma and the sex trade can also get customers into trouble.
But the guesthouse owner didn’t turn a hair—and it soon became apparent why. To my alarm, he invited them in, sat them down and, after some pleasantries, he handed them a large envelope, clearly containing money. The policemen smiled and left.
“Don’t worry, they’re my friends,” the guesthouse owner assured me.
Brothels masquerading as guesthouses are mushrooming all over Rangoon, despite the difficulty of obtaining licenses. “It’s not that easy,” a guesthouse owner in Insein Township told me. “You have to obtain all kinds of documents from the police and local authorities.”
Once licensed, a guesthouse owner still has to nurture good relations with the neighborhood police, paying annual “levies” ranging from 300,000 kyat ($250) to 1 million kyat ($800). The money buys advanced warnings from the local police if a raid is planned by superior officers.
It’s a profitable arrangement for both sides. Guesthouses used by outside sex workers can earn up to 700,000 kyat ($590) a day by renting out its rooms, while an establishment employing its own women can make more than 1 million kyat ($800), sources told me.