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Criminal Gangs in Antwerp Trafficking in Thai Women and Children

From the Life section of The Nation, Bangkok, June 4, 2007

It's the turn of Thai actresses to show the Asian side of sex trafficking in an acclaimed Belgian TV series

It's to be hoped that viewers of a Belgian TV series on human trafficking have the same revelation as Tharinee Songkiathanna, one of its stars. Like most people, she had no idea how perfectly sensible women could inadvertently end up in the sex trade.

Then she met some.

"Matrioshki" - the title means "Russian Dolls" - began in 2005 as a 10-part series about a criminal gang from Antwerp that recruited young women in Lithuania to be sex toys back in Belgium.

The series was so well received that a second string of episodes - this one about Asian women being swept into the lurid game - has been shot in Bangkok and Pattaya. More filming will take place in Belgium next month.

Portraying the victims are actors Tharinee, Chalita Chaisaeng, Duangduean Kumphasee, Pailin Patta, Pannane Sangkorn and Thanita Jirapanich.

Tharinee plays Thip, the daughter of a poor upcountry family who is sold into prostitution and works in Pattaya, where her pay is split between the family and her agent. She's soon sold to another agent, this one a European.

The young women who get sucked into the business, says Tharinee, "really have no other chance, no education, no nothing". She got an education, though, when she read the script by Marc Punt - co-director of the series with Guy Goossens - and actually met the girls working in the bars.

After four weeks mingling, Tharinee remains pessimistic about the sex workers being freed from the trap. Thip does escape in the series but is ultimately forced to return to the profession "because she has no other choice".

"It could happen to anyone, even the people close to you," says Pailin, who plays Gai in the new series. Gai is sold to work in a brothel where a fire breaks out and she's unable to escape - because she's handcuffed in place.

Pailin had a friend, a university graduate, who wanted to make a lot of money and ended up sold into slavery abroad. It took a few years before she could find her way back home.

"I don't think the overseas trade is a big problem for Thailand now," Kaprice Kea, their agent, observes. "It's become more of a problem for Cambodia, Vietnam and Russia."

The scenes shot in Thailand were straightforward, nothing lurid, all five actresses say. Most of the filming took place in bars, among dancers and escorts, but "none of the scenes are X-rated", says Duangduean.

Nor are any of the actresses worried about next month's shoot in Belgium.

Kea is keeping a sharp eye out for any deviations from their contracts. He knows that pressures on the set can sometimes lead to an actor being forced to do a scene that's beyond the agreed range.

"I have to make sure the scenes are no more than just 'sexy' - no nudity, no topless shots," he insists.

Despite the controversial content, the goal of the series is to bring about a change in both the law and public perception of human trafficking.

The message of the original series was both received and acclaimed. Belgian viewers embraced the show and it was declared Best TV Drama Series at the Radio and Television Critics Awards.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai 
The Nation

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