In a small dimly-lit room at the Burmese immigration office, on the border of northern Thailand and Burma, there is a large, luminous portrait of General Than Shwe, festooned with medals and ribbons.
His steely gaze surveys the hundreds of foreign tourists who cross the border bridge to visit the ramshackle, open air market at Tachilek each day. He is also the embodiment of the strict and relentless censorship of everything, from poetry to the latest Rambo film (set in Burma), controlled by his Orwellian regime.
Less than 50 meters away, under the bridge on the Burmese side, you can buy, for a little over a dollar, films depicting the sexual abuse and torture of British, American, European and Asian children. Some are aged as young as four while none is older than 12.
And unless you are a saffron-robed monk, you will not be searched on the way back across the border into Thailand.
While the market at Tachilek is notorious for fake designer goods, dubious precious gemstones, the teeth, skulls and skins of endangered animals and phony pharmaceuticals, the child pornography is real. The tears and shrieks are not the result of dubbing or digital manipulation.
The graphic footage of a five-year-old Cambodian girl having her arms strapped to her legs with electrical tape before being subjected to unspeakable violations is unrehearsed.
The diminutive seven-year-old British girl who is raped by a 200 pound, black-hooded man while another man films, has been deceived by a man she trusts.
The Indian girl, aged about six, wearing only school socks and shoes has not been groomed to look like a primary school student — she is one. And she is violently raped.
While the fake designer goods are mass produced for a large diverse market, thousands of such films are sold exclusively to a dedicated group of connoisseurs by the world's most malevolent cottage industry.
The market and the bridge crossing at Mai Sai are well known to international human rights groups, NGOs and law enforcement bodies as strategically important to regional human trafficking and narcotics smuggling.
On the Burmese mountains and in the dark ravines there are dozens of makeshift camps where ethnic minorities, uprooted, persecuted and displaced by Burma's military regime, seek refuge. Many of them make their way to Thailand to find work.
On the Thai side, in the lowlands of rice and corn fields, are hundreds of crumbling orphanages where large rickety chalk boards bear the names of thousands of children. As one aid worker said, even these vast lists do not reflect the real number of transient children in care.
And while Thailand has set up roadside checkpoints on the highway between Chiang Rai and Mai Sai, in reality they consist of life-sized, fiber-glass figures of Thai police officers, signalling to drivers to stop. Sadly, unlike the fake designer goods at the Tachilek market, the dummies lack verisimilitude.
Burma is a party to the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) but has not yet signed the Optional Protocol (2000) on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
Nations and states that are parties to the convention and optional protocol are, in addition to protecting children from all forms of abuse and exploitation, obliged to take appropriate measures to thwart the production and distribution of child pornography.
In addition, Burma's own child laws state that it is a punishable offence to use children in the making of pornographic material while its penal code makes it illegal to exhibit or distribute any obscene material. The penalties range from fines to terms of imprisonment of up to two years.
However, with Burma's state infrastructure and law enforcement bodies riddled with corruption it's no surprise the Tachilek market is honeycombed with illegal goods.
Behind legitimate shop fronts are secret doors and false walls leading to hidden inner-rooms where thousands of films depicting the most depraved social taboos are displayed and sold.
The trade in child pornography flourishes while the omniscient Burmese regime scrutinises the plots of the latest Hollywood films for conspiracies and subversion against the state — when the greatest subterfuge is within.
There are no borders or checkpoints on route to the heart of darkness.
Child Pornography and Exploitation resource page (Children's Rights International)
Harry Nicolaides is a Melbourne-born freelance writer living in Northern Thailand.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
29 July 2008
If visitors STOPPED visiting or were not allowed.
My heart rate has increased while reading, my feelings of fear, terror and disgust have heightened. WHAT CAN WE DO?? How can we change these terrible minds and heartless people's souls?????
29 July 2008
The Hu Jintao clique support those awful generals, and we be nice to the Hu Jintao clique!
29 July 2008
I have been to the market at Tachilek dozens of times over the past few years. I have never seen or been offered Child Pornography of course that doesn't mean that it isn't there.
There are 3 Check Points between Mae Sai and Chiang Mai and while it is true that years ago only Monks were checked (in case they were Burmese in disguise) this hasn't been true for at least 2 years. I always get stopped and searched at least once on every return trip.
I wonder why the author is holding Thai police accountable for an atrocity committed in Burma.
I find this article is also exploitative of the victims of child pornography using it to bring attention to this site/author.
29 July 2008
I too go to Tachilek regularly. I have never seen child pornography on offer. I am also searched regularly by the Thai police.
29 July 2008
I live in Northern Thailand and make the trip all the time. Never seen any child porn for sale and the checkpoints in Thailand are manned with real policeman (women) looking for illegal immigrants and drugs.
30 July 2008
I have lived and worked in Northern Thailand for over 8 years. Police are present and do search vehicles on the Chiang Rai - Mae sai.
I have never seen the movies that he is talking about and like the previous reply has said, I am sure they are available, but not as the reporter has said.
Thailand has cracked down hard on the exploitation of kids and does not condone any abuse of kids.
30 July 2008
To those who are disputing the veracity of my claims: The material is not presented to tourists with playing cards, cigarette lighters and small, battery-operated potable fans. But the secret rooms are there. I stepped into one of these vaults filled with thousands of illicit movies while the store manager happily showed footage from selected films.
Sadly, the law offers no protection to journalists or publications for handling the hard evidence. International groups lobbying for increased protection to bona fide journalists note that less than one percent of victims that feature in these films are ever identified or rescued (Interpol).
However, like all businessmen, the shop manager will give you his business card which you can pass onto the authorities.
This is s sophisticated network that stretches from China through Tachilek to Bangkok where smaller quantities of films are also available.
And it's not the monks that are smuggling the material over the border. When I crossed the monks in front of me had to endure the intrusive prodding and groping of the Thai checkpoint guards, relieved no doubt that they would not experience the same from the fiberglass dummies down the road.
john Le Fevre
31 July 2008
I live in Chiang Mai and was in Mae Sai and Tachilek two weeks ago and spent the day with wandering the markets and surrounding area.
Fake Nokia handphones, viagara, Chinese copies of Western brand cigarettes and porn were all offered to me and my college.
However there were no signs of "the teeth, skulls and skins of endangered animals" or any child porn that is so graphically described in this article.
Standing and observing the check points I saw many monks crossing between the two countries and not one was subjected to any interference of checking.
I invite the writer to contact me and accompany on a trip to Tachilek to substantiate his claims.
01 August 2008
Hi John. I really can't add to my previous posted statement. The sad truth is that these films do exist - and are sold as I described.
Apart from the flagrant breaches of international copyright laws that you confirm (fake Nokia phones, imitation Viagra, counterfeit cigarettes etc.) the trade in animal trophies (teeth, skins, tiger penises, skulls, gall bladers, horns, tusks) has been well documented. In fact animal rights activists have referred to the market as "Tachilek's Street of Shame".
My responsibility as a journalist was to expose the trade in child pornography. The information is now in the public domain. The authorities have a duty of care to act and prevent the next victim from abuse and exploitation.
02 August 2008
I also visit tachilek every three months and i have never seen the skulls and skins, get checked all the time, and yes ... saw more than one copy of one of the worst movies ever made on sale: rambo
22 January 2009
I have lived in Northern Thailand for five years, and have had to go to Mae Sai too many times for visa runs. I can confirm that although not obvious, child pornography is cheaply and easily available with just a bit of searching at Tachilek.