Human trafficking for enforced labour, the sex trade and coerced marriage engulfs an estimated 40 million victims worldwide, most of them women and children. Many are destitute refugees and migrants. Every year, more risk being drawn into this illicit trade, a highly lucrative form of organised crime estimated to be worth US$150 billion a year. Hartanto Gunawan, a former Indonesian businessman and monk, operating out of a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, has dedicated the past 16 years to giving girls from northern Thailand another option to selling their bodies.
When Gunawan’s mother urged her son to become a religious celibate and, at 33, leave his highly stressful business behind, the dutiful son joined a monastery in Thailand, whereupon he was ordered to spend time meditating in complete isolation on an uninhabited island infested with snakes, scorpions and spiders in the middle of a huge lake. He was then to wait until called.
Gunawan figured it might be a matter of weeks, perhaps months. However, the head monk had completely forgotten about him. For two years. During this time, he built a shelter and arranged with local fishers, who used the island as a base, to take him to the mainland where, as part of Buddhist tradition, he could beg for food from the villagers. He would then share his take with the fishers who took him back.
Gunawan readily admits he loathed every minute on the island. “I couldn’t stand the snakes and the spiders. But you learn to live with them,” he says. On completing his monastic life — ordaining as a monk for one or more months is considered a rite of passage for young Buddhist men — Gunawan decided he wanted to do something about the problem of human trafficking, particularly amongst the poor hill tribes in northern Thailand.
According to ECPAT International, UNDP and other organisations, an estimated 25 million victims originate from the Asia-Pacific region alone. As many as 60 percent end up as sex workers in bars, brothels and massage parlours in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh. Or, attracted by promises of well-paying jobs, they are sold into servitude — including forced sex — or as wives with few or no rights to men in the Middle East, Africa and China. The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes in Vienna maintains just over half of all victims are women and nearly a third are children. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 are believed to come from Thailand. Human trafficking is also linked to the same networks who traffic wildlife, drugs and cultural heritage.
Gunawan, who is now in his mid-fifties, was horrified by the plight of teenage victims being lured by the traffickers with false promises or under pressure from their families in need of money. “I kept hearing about girls being taken from their villages and then raped, sometimes 20 times a day,” he says. “I tried to imagine what it was doing to their lives. I decided I had to do something. And, given my philosophy has always been ‘prevention is best’, I figured if I can save one life, then it is worthy of my own life.”
Gunawan now lives and works out of Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn, an early 19th century Buddhist enclave in the Thong Buri district of Bangkok. Overlooking the Chao Phraya River, it’s where in 2007 he established a Community Learning Centre to train teenage high school graduates to be nursing assistants. The one-year course is aimed at susceptible girls from poor families, but also orphans — the ones most likely to be taken by traffickers.
“It was important to provide the skills for a job that could offer a viable alternative to the illegal sex trade,” he told Global Geneva. “There is a shortage of nursing assistants. They are also well-paid, with good prospects for the future.” A nursing assistant can expect to earn the equivalent of 12,000 Baht (US$400) a month, including accommodation — an acceptable income in Thailand.
Gunawan notes that the girls are most vulnerable after graduating from high school at the age of 16 or 17. For many, their only option is the sex trade. The Thai mafia is constantly on the lookout for new ‘talent’ and agents tour villages in search of attractive girls (and boys) who are ‘bought’ from their families and then sent to Bangkok or other locations frequented mainly by foreigners. As Gunawan sees it, his job is to get to them first. “You can say I am in competition with the mafia,” he says with a laugh. “Of course, we have to be careful not to step on their toes, but it is also a matter of explaining to the parents that a girl can have a very good future in nursing. We guarantee them jobs at the end.”
The centre offers more than basic skills. “We try to offer them the means to respect themselves, such as developing leadership skills and self-confidence,” he adds. “Plus some English. Always a useful language.”
As part of their intense work and study program, the girls — aged 16 to 19 — learn IT, meditation and Thai culture, such as dance and fruit carving. Every year, 15 to 20 are selected out of more than a hundred applicants. Living in bunk-bed dorms, they’re expected to clean and perform daily duties at the temple, including community service and helping the monks with food. Finally, they are given apprentice nursing placements around the country to gain experience. To date, the centre has trained more than 250 girls.
Gunawan regularly heads north to visit villages in search of candidates. Sometimes he is contacted by the families, or he hears about a girl who’s been approached by the mafia. This usually happens while they’re still at school. “I managed to save one girl who was leaving for Sudan the very next day. She was 17. Everything was ready — the airplane ticket, her belongings and the person who was taking her away,” he said. “She called me the day before so I went to see her and her family immediately.”
Gunawan sees part of his work as persuasion. He has to convince the girls and their families that nursing is the best option for their future. “I sold the program to that girl like a salesman,” he said with a laugh. The family, he adds, had been promised 30,000 Baht (US$1000). Girls like her are being trafficked for prostitution not just in Thailand but also Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Dubai, Russia and other countries. Until Thailand’s covid lockdown, many Russian and Ukrainian women were being sex-trafficked, but renowned tourism centres such as Pattaya are now virtually ghost towns because of Thailand’s closed borders.
Sometimes, too, the girls end up dead in shipping containers. Gunawan says the police found 43 dead girls in the Indonesian jungle during a crackdown. They were killed to prevent them talking.
One of the problems, Gunawan notes, is that the girls are not taught in school to be wary of the mafia or the true nature of sex trafficking. The quality of education in rural Thailand is poor; some cannot even tell the time. “We have to start from the very basics,” he says. Everything is provided free: food, tuition, accommodation. The identity and often location of the girls are kept secret, particularly if the mafia are still seeking to find those they have already ‘invested’ in. One plus being housed in the Wat Arun complex, he adds, “is that it is protected by the Royal Thai Navy who have barracks just down the road.” According to several sex trafficking experts in Thailand, the police cannot necessarily be relied upon; they are often complicit in the trafficking, particularly in the border areas.
Over the years, Gunawan has been supported by numerous philanthropists, including private individuals and diplomats, some of whom do it discreetly. And he argues it doesn’t take much to change a life. As he points out, 130,000 Baht (US$4,340) per student is enough to cover all costs for the entire year. “So basically, if you think about it, you can completely change the life of one girl for the better for less than 5,000 dollars,” he says.
Gunawan remains in touch with many of the girls, who write regularly and keep him updated on their progress. Some even seek to reimburse their scholarships. Most work with hospitals and health centres in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. With a graduation rate of 97 percent, the centre is considered one of the world’s most successful prevention and intervention centres by the US State Department.
ABOVE Hartanto Gunawan, standing in front of the famous Guardian Giant statues at Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)
ABOVE INSET Gunawan with students before they leave for training at a rural hospital
PHOTOS Sasamon Rattanalangkarn/The National