As the gap between rich and poor grows wider, destitute Asians are increasingly selling their most valuable property: their children

Mama San won’t budge from $1,000. There’s the food, the clothes, the makeup, the perfume and the condoms, not to mention the fees of the middlemen. At $1,000, she’s making nothing, she says. She taps out the figure in baht on a calculator and holds it up: 43,650. You won’t get a pair of 14-year-old Burmese girls for less in this town.

“Thirty thousand,” I suggest.

“Forty-three,” counters Mama San. She tells Tip (whose name means “heavenly light”) and Lek (meaning “small”) to fetch their chips. The two tiny figures squatting at her feet jump up, dart under the two pink strips that provide the only light in the bar, run upstairs and return breathlessly clutching gambling counters. “What the customers paid,” explains Mama San. In the three months since she was brought to this backstreet brothel in the northern Thai town of Mae Sai, Lek has collected eight white chips and four blues—a total of $59.50. Tip has done better: 20 whites, 10 blues and four reds make $163. “Not a bad little earner,” says Mama San.

“Thirty-five thousand?” I venture.

With her scarlet fingernails, Mama San pinches her plunging black V-neck sweater by the shoulder pads, hitches up her matronly bosom and smooths the sweater over her belly. “Forty-two thousand, five hundred, and I’ll be losing money,” she sighs. “I sent 5,000 home to Lek’s parents and 10,000 to Tip’s.” Conveniently ignoring the silver Mercedes parked in the forecourt outside, she repeats she makes nothing from prostitution. She’s in it because she cares. She takes the girls in, puts a roof over their heads. “What can I do? I feel sorry for them. Somebody has to protect them.”

Tip, like many of the girls in Mae Sai, is from Kentung in Burma’s eastern Shan state. Mama San is also from the Shan region and grew up with some of the girls’ mothers. As a 20-year Mae Sai resident who graduated from working the brothels to owning one, she is regarded as a success and a valuable contact on the other, richer side of the border. It’s a responsibility, she says. Her conscience won’t let the two girls go for anything less than 41,500.

“Forty-one thousand?”

Done. We shake hands.

On the floor where they have been listening in wide-eyed silence, Tip and Lek embrace. Lek claps, hoarsely barks something in slang at the 15 other girls lined up on a bench in front of the bar and runs, shrieking and giggling into the street, with her waist-length black hair trailing. The teenagers ignore her, locked into a Thai adventure-romance on the television overhead. For a moment, Tip stays where she is, her childlike hands clasped in front, bony elbows between her knees. Then she shuffles over to join the row of moon faces turned up toward the screen. She and Lek have been sold. Again.

This time to Jonathan, the photographer working on this story, and me.

Fifteen minutes later, facing an unknown future with just a pink plastic basket holding a few clothes and a bottle of shampoo, Lek starts to cry. Suddenly sensing a need to do everything properly, she runs into the bar, kneels in front of Mama San and begins to bow and chant, a good Buddhist girl in smudged makeup giving thanks for her freedom. Mama San laughs, flattered by the display of supplication. She isn’t worried about finding replacements. “Their mothers or the middlemen bring them to me,” she says. “There are always fresh ones.”

Mama San is right: there is no shortage of kids for sale. Across Asia, tens of thousands of children are peddled into slavery each year. Some toil with their families as bonded laborers on farms. Others are sold by their parents—or tricked by agents—into servitude as camel jockeys, fisher boys or beggars. In Burma, some are kidnapped by the state and forced to become soldiers. And, according to the International Labor Organization, at least 1 million children are prostitutes, with the greatest numbers in Thailand, India, Taiwan and the Philippines. It’s a growing problem, fueled by the Asian economic boom and the subsequent bust, which has fostered an increasingly yawning gap between rich and poor, countryside and city, isolated hinterlands and wealthy coasts. On the continent, alongside the millionaires of Bangkok and Hong Kong, live two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor—790 million people earning less than $1 a day. In the race to escape their deprivation, whole villages are sometimes complicit in the sale of their children. The procurers, says Sompop Jantraka, a leading Thai activist who has saved thousands of girls from being sold into brothels, might be the wives of village heads. Teachers know which children are vulnerable, and some alert procurers for a fee. He has seen pickup trucks full of girls sold to brothels leaving from schools in what is called tok keow, or the green harvest. A police officer is often at the wheel. “This is a war,” Sompop says. “A war for our children.”

The sordid traffic touches nearly every part of Asia. But Thailand and India in particular serve as hubs of the flesh trade: exporters and importers of children and adults on a massive scale. An estimated 7,000 Nepalese children are smuggled into India each year to join the sex industry. In the age of AIDS, children increasingly earn the biggest profits. With a girl’s virginity selling for as much as $3,500 in Bangkok, recurring recessions have ensured a ready supply of daughters sold by poverty-stricken families. The number of child prostitutes in Thailand is at least 60,000, though estimates go as high as 200,000. Almost all are working under duress: 21st century slaves.

The numbers are wrenching, but to comprehend the problem, one need only watch the sordid hour-by-hour lives of girls like Lek and Tip. As we talked with them over a few days, our sense of being impartial observers gave way to a feeling of being uncomfortable voyeurs and then grew to a gnawing sense that just by watching the children’s degradation we were somehow implicated. I’m not sure at what point we decided that, although we couldn’t guarantee their futures, we could buy their freedom. We could help them escape.

Lek had already tried. On her second day, after instruction from Mama San on how to apply makeup and satisfy a client, a drunken Bangkok businessman beat her when she complained he was being too rough. She fled when she was released from the hospital. “I went to the temple,” she says, pointing to the golden stupas on a hill high above the eastern outskirts of Mae Sai. “Mama San paid the police to come and arrest me. They held me there with only bread and water for three days. After that I was too afraid to run away. Mama San knows people everywhere, on both sides of the border. She could arrange for me to be taken back to her anytime. Tip knew this: she told me not to go.”

Although Lek and Tip have been in Mae Sai for only a few months when we meet them, they have already learned to hide their inner thoughts. “We don’t have feelings anymore,” says Tip. “We cleared them out.” But they can still dream of freedom, can still tell us they want out. They talk about how hard they would hug their mothers if they ever get home, so tightly no one could ever separate them again. “My mother would be really upset if she knew what I was doing and I desperately want to tell her,” says Lek. “But I can’t because it would break her heart. Every time I speak to her, she pleads with me to come home.”

That’s how Jonathan and I found ourselves driving to the ATM, withdrawing $930—41,000 baht—and buying Lek and Tip. It wasn’t merely the prospect of these two children steadily building up their collection of chips over the next decade that compelled us. It was partially witnessing the despair of the other girls who had buried all hope with their childhoods. Girls like Pim, who works in a brothel a few meters up the road.

When we ask, Pim insists she is 19. She’s probably closer to 12. Less than 1.5 m tall, her platform heels only highlight how short her legs are. Her tissue-stuffed bra emphasizes her flat chest. And the bright green eye shadow and heavy rouge she wears give her all the vampishness of a seventh-grader playing the clown in a school play. The most popular of the girls in her brothel, picked out by up to three customers a day, she insists she has never been happier. But sitting in a restaurant by the Nam Ruak River, the 10-m-wide watery frontier at Mae Sai’s northern end, Pim can’t stop gazing at her homeland on the opposite bank. For a few moments, the mask drops. “No one is here because they want to be here,” she murmurs. “Everyone’s here because they have to be.” Looking away, she starts quietly weeping. Without a good command of Thai or the right documents allowing her to return to her village in Burma, Pim has given up all hope of leaving. Besides, her Mama San insists Pim owes her $2,000, her purchase price. And how could she get money to pay? When asked if she wants to go home, she looks away at something far off in the distance. Staying, on the other hand, carries its own paralyzing fear. “My regular customers are Thai, the visitors are Japanese,” she says. “When they’re drunk, none of them want to wear condoms. You can’t force them.”

Like Tip, Pim comes from eastern Burma. A member of the Akha minority, one of the hill tribes that populate that region, she was born in a settlement outside Kentung, an area of wild jungle mountains that doubles as rebel country and forms the heart of the Golden Triangle opium and amphetamine production zone. Pim remembers a tough but happy childhood raising chickens and working the rice fields on her parents’ land, which clings to a steep ridge above a clear rushing stream.

One day a trader came to the village. He spoke of riches beyond a poor farming family’s dreams: $2,000 now and more to follow when Pim sent money home from Thailand. Her mother told her she would be working as a mae bai, a maid. Pim, who had no reason to doubt her, found herself being packed off. The trader, keen to make a trip so far up-country pay, had hired a minivan: Pim describes how her first day in captivity was spent driving from village to village as the man picked up a total of 12 girls. Bribing his way past the many Burmese road checkpoints and buying forged visitor papers allowing the girls to work in Mae Sai proved to be routine. The rebel threat and drug running give even honest Burmese security forces in the area other priorities.

Selling an 11-year-old virgin turned out to be even easier. At the first place they came to in Thailand, less than a kilometer from the bridge over the Nam Ruak, a brothel owner bought Pim.

Pim now suspects her mother knew her true destiny. Lek and Tip, on the other hand, appear unaware, or unable to admit, that their mothers sold them into sexual slavery. Lek says she came to Mae Sai because she wanted to earn money to help her widow mother buy their rented house. A friend approached her in a market near her house in Rangoon, she says, and asked simply whether she wanted to make money in Thailand. She jumped at the chance. Tip, like Pim, was recruited by an agent but insists her mother thought she was going to be cleaning houses. Both girls say they can never tell their families they are prostitutes. They would be too ashamed.

The price that Kentung’s daughters pay for their parents’ poverty can be found in its graveyards. The idyllic-looking hillside hamlet of traditional wooden houses and carved balconies brimming with mountain flowers is four hours north of the Thai border by car. In a town of perhaps 5,000 people, the AIDS epidemic imported from over the frontier reached the point in the late 1990s where someone died every day, according to one Western aid worker. The rate has since fallen, but it’s not a sign of improvement. Rather, it’s a reflection of the earlier devastation. World Vision is one of the few nongovernmental organizations to brave international condemnation for working under, and inevitably sometimes with, Burma’s military junta to try to counter trafficking and its effects in the area. One of its workers says that since 1997, out of 400 AIDS patients it registered in the nine village districts around Kentung, 380 have died. The government tries to hide the reality, but even where deaths are counted, the embarrassed Burmese authorities fudge the true total—listing complications brought on by AIDS as the cause of death. “No one will ever know how many people have really died around here from AIDS,” the aid worker says.

But even though the terrible price of prostitution has become evident by the sheer force of numbers, the flow of girls has not slowed. The economic imperative is such that for most families, sending daughters illegally to Thailand is a must, says Cherry Waing of World Vision’s Kentung office. And with no education or training, girls have little earning power outside the flesh trade. “Every village has a broker for sex workers,” says Waing.

Little thought is given to the girls’ return. Many simply don’t. But for those who survive with their health intact, the journey home can be fraught. Most lack the requisite identity cards, which are issued solely in the district of residence and only to people aged 18 or older. “Either the girls have to bribe their way home, if they have enough money, or more usually they need to be sponsored by their parents or the village head,” says Waing. Such arrangements, she adds, are extremely rare. “Generally these are the very people who sent them away in the first place.” Since starting up a repatriation program early last year, World Vision has managed to bring only three girls back from Mae Sai.

Taking Lek and Tip over the border turns out to be easy. Both girls insist they want to go to Kentung to live with Tip’s family. They would feel safest there. With trepidation, we agree. While we arrange visas for ourselves, they pick up a pass to Tachileik, the Burmese border town opposite Mae Sai. With the heavy traffic across the bridge, the four of us cross unnoticed. Fearing problems with checkpoints if we go by road, we buy the two girls flights to Kentung. It is with relief that we watch the plane take off.

Only later do we learn that Lek and Tip never made it past the departure lounge. Minutes before the aircraft is to take off, as we wait obliviously outside in the parking lot, the airport authorities throw them out. By the time we hear of their missed flight, we have discovered something even more wrenching: the mothers of both girls have been receiving regular payments from Mama San.

Lek and Tip are still in Tachileik, where they have taken shelter with an older friend. Perhaps it’s better that they didn’t return home. Their mothers sold them once; would they have tried again? It’s not a happy ending. And many could argue that we did the wrong thing, that by paying money for the girls we were only perpetuating the trade, that helping them take only one step toward freedom was not enough. But unlike Pim, Lek and Tip might, at least, have some choices this time.

(adapted from TIME)