Carnal pleasures on road to Nirvana

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THERE IS a joke doing the rounds in Lhasa. In the morning, the men go to circumambulate the Jokhang temple, the holy pilgrimage route for Tibetan Buddhists. But they do not get home until the evening.

Anyone who has recently seen Tibet's capital will understand; after an explosion in the lucrative sex trade in Lhasa, even the most sacredsites are now surrounded by brothels and prostitutes, mostly operating without hindrance from the Chinese-controlled local government and police.

"I was working at a bar and upstairs there was a sauna and showers,'' said a 20-year-old Tibetan woman from Lhasa. "Those who give you a bath are women. Do you know the word prostitutes? They wait in a queue and are given numbers. All the girls are given a number. In that brothel there are 80 or 90 girls. They are Chinese. with only a few Tibetan girls.'' But the customers were mostly Tibetan, she explained.

Unofficial surveys provided to the London-based Tibet Information Network (TIN), published in a report today, indicate an astonishing growth in the sex trade in Lhasa.

"One unofficial survey carried out by a Tibetan in 1998 showed 658 brothels and 238 dance halls and karaoke bars in 18 main streets of Lhasa,'' said the report, which told where the premises were located. Rapid urbanisation and a huge influx of Chinese over the past decade have pushed the official population in the city centre to 200,000, but this does not include the tens of thousands of People's Liberation Army soldiers billeted near the city, and the many temporary workers and businessmen who flow in and out of the city.

An 18-year-old nun from Lhasa told TIN: "There has been a drastic increase in the number of brothels in Lhasa. There is a brothel at almost every corner. The prostitutes stay put in the brothels and have good contacts with many offices and highly placed authorities. All the houses around the circumambulation path are brothels or karaoke bars. Most of the houses belong to Chinese offices.'' While there are some big establishments, most are small, with about six girls.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, has lamen-ted the destruction of local religious customs and culture by the Chinese. More recently, it is the social fabric that has begun to fray, with prostitution, alcoholism, gambling and drugs all commonplace. Crime, divorce and domestic violence are all on the rise, said TIN.

Chinese businessmen and soldiers originally provided a ready customer base for the sex trade, which until recently was mostly plied by migrant Chinese women from neighbouring provinces. But prostitution in Lhasa has become a more local industry, with Tibetan men using brothels and unemployed local women working in them.

A Tibetan monk in exile told TIN: "There are restaurants owned by Tibetans who bring in girls picked up from the area in front of Miru monastery on Dekyi Shar Lam. They keep these girls in the restaurant and people can sleep with them. There are about 1,000 of these girls, who have often arrived from the countryside and cannot find jobs."

As elsewhere in China, the authorities in Lhasa appear to operate a laissez- faire approach to the sex trade, despite the many laws banning it. A few months ago, even the state- controlled Tibet Radio admitted: "Since most of the premises used for prostitution are rented property belonging to the Communist Party, the government, private entrepreneurs and other departments, the first step in the campaign against prostitution must start with these official bodies through effective supervision of the use of properties rented out by them."

This is particularly so around the PLA barracks, near the Kyichu river. "All the houses built with their backs to the walls surrounding the camp have been leased to brothels," said an exiled Tibetan monk.

Social Evils, Prostitution and Pornography in Lhasa: Tibet Information Network