Thai academics, officials and sex workers gathered yesterday for a national debate on a proposal to legalize prostitution, a multi-billion-dollar industry dogged by exploitation and police corruption.
The government says legalization would give the estimated 200,000 sex workers access to social services, health care and protection from abuse while exposing corruption among the industry's gatekeepers -- police, politicians and business owners.
"Every Thai person is entitled to basic human rights under the Constitution," said Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana, who hosted the seminar attended by some 200 people.
"The government will not make a decision hastily. So it's going to take a long, long time, but we can't tell when," he said.
But in a recent interview, the minister said it is clear the government will have to "tackle this problem one way or another."
Prostitution was made illegal in 1928, and the laws against it strengthened in 1960. But it is an omnipresent part of the Thai society, tacitly accepted and tolerated.
Prostitution goes on in brothels in the countryside, behind the garish signs over Bangkok's girlie bars and massage parlors.
The industry is estimated to account for an estimated 3 percent of Thailand's economy, or about US$4.3 billion a year.
But because prostitution is illegal, brothel owners pays no taxes, instead giving regular bribes and hush money to corrupt policemen. Meanwhile, sex workers are treated like slaves with little or no rights.
"We just want to take care of ourselves," said Noi, a 26-year-old who has worked as a prostitute for two years and asked to be identified only by her nickname. "But we need insurance, we need everything."
She said if prostitution becomes legal "we won't have to hide from the police" and would have recourse against customers who are violent or refuse to pay for services.