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“Did the head monk apologize to you for having forgotten about you for two years on a desert island?” I asked.
“No. Not at all.”
“Did you ask him to apologize?”
“No, it would have been for me to apologize. No one ever questions the head monk.”
Hartanto Gunawan, a former CEO and entrepreneur for a multi-industry holding company in Indonesia, spent four years as a Buddhist monk. He was clearly amused by my astonishment. As a novice, he explained, no one would ever dream of contradicting the head monk. That’s just the way it is.
When Hartanto’s mother urged her son to become a religious celibate and — at 33 — leave his highly stressful life as a businessman behind, he went to Thailand. There he joined a monastery and 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 should then wait until he was called.
Hartanto figured that it might be a matter of weeks, perhaps months. But two years? The head monk had in fact completely forgotten about him. During this time, the former businessman-turned-monk built himself a shelter and arranged with local fishermen, 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 fishermen who took him back.
“Did they do this every day?” I asked.
Hartanto smiled. “Yes. But not when the weather was bad. I would then have nothing to eat.”
“So what did you do?”
“I meditated. I thought about a lot of things. I cleansed my mind.”
The Need To Do Something About Sex Trafficking
Hartanto readily admits that he loathed every minute on the island. “I couldn’t stand the snakes and the spiders. But you learn to live with them,” he said.
The experience, coupled with the meditation, had clearly made this broad-faced man with greying hair stronger. On completing his monastic life — ordaining as a monk for one or more months is considered a rite of passage for young Buddhist men — Hartanto decided that he wanted to do something about the problem of human trafficking, particularly among the poor hill tribes in the northern part of Thailand.
According to ECPAT International, UNDP, and other organizations, an estimated 25 million of globally-trafficked victims originate from the Asia/Pacific region. As many as 60 percent end up as sex workers in bars, brothels, and massage parlors in countries such as 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 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) in Vienna maintains that 51 percent of victims are women and nearly one-third children. Some 100,000 to 200,000 are believed to come from Thailand. Human trafficking is also linked to the same networks engaged in wildlife, drug, and cultural heritage trafficking. (See Global Geneva articles by Keith Somerville and William Dowell.)
Now in his mid-50s, Hartanto, a soft-spoken, gently rotund man with a mellow smile, found himself horrified by the plight of teenage victims being drawn by the traffickers with false promises or under pressure from their families in need of money.
“I kept hearing about girls being taken away from their villages and then raped, sometimes 20 times a day,” he said. “I tried to imagine what it was doing to their lives. I decided that I had to do something. And given that my philosophy has always been ‘prevention’ is best, I figured if I can save one life, then it is worthy of my own life.”
A Highly Sought-After Work/Study Program
Hartanto now lives and works out of Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn, an early 19th century Buddhist enclave from the reign of Rama II, which is located in the Thong Buri district of Bangkok. Overlooking the Chao Phraya River, this is where in 2007 Hartanto established the Wat Arun Rajvararam Community Learning Centre (CLC) to train teenage high school graduates as nurse assistants. The one-year course is aimed at susceptible girls from poor families, but also orphans, who are the ones most likely to be taken by the traffickers.
“It was important to provide the skills for a job that could offer a viable alternative to the illegal sex trade,” Hartanto explained on a recent visit to the centre. “There is a shortage of nurse assistants. They are also well-paid with good prospects for the future.” A nurse assistant can expect to earn the equivalent of 12,000 Baht ($400) a month, including accommodation. This is considered an acceptable income in Thailand.
Sporting a COVID-19 mask and white T-shirt with a lattice front, Hartanto led us inside where a dozen girls, all wearing neatly pressed blue blouses and longish dark dresses, greeted us, their hands pressed together in the traditional Buddhist greeting. “Good morning” and “Welcome” they announced before presenting us with yellow flowers.
Hartanto noted that the girls are most vulnerable when they graduate from high school at the age of 16 or 17. With the government no longer responsible for them, “the girls often find themselves at a crossroads.” For many, sometimes with the urging of their parents to find a source of income, their only option is the sex trade. The Thai mafia are constantly on the lookout for new candidates.
As a result, their 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 Hartanto sees it, his job is to get to them first. “You can say that I am in competition with the mafia,” he said 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 Learning Centre offers more than just a conventional skills education. During the first four years, the centre also took boys. But Hartanto, whose students call him “father,” then decided to focus on girls, whom he finds are more disciplined. “We try to offer them the means to respect themselves, such as developing leadership skills and self-confidence. Plus some English,” he added. “Always a useful language.”
As part of their intense and highly sought-after one-year work and study program, the girls, whose ages range from 16 to 19, learn IT, meditation, and Thai culture, such as dance and carving fruit. Every year, 15-20 are selected out of over 100 applicants.
Living in bunk-bed dormitories, they are expected to clean and perform daily duties at the temple ranging from community service to helping the monks with food. Finally, they are given apprenticeship nursing placements around the country to gain experience. To date, the center has trained over 250 girls.
Hartanto explained that the girls of this year’s intake all arrived in March from hill tribe villages in the north, such as from the Chiang Mai and Issam areas, but the training course only began in June. “We have two and a half months to prepare the girls, who may be distressed at being away from home and suddenly in a big city. Some are also victims who have been abused so we need to take care of them.”
Like Hartanto, the girls get up every morning at 4 a.m. for meditation followed by a full day of classes and chores. They go to sleep at 10 p.m. They are allowed to use their mobile phones in the evening to call their families. “It’s a tight regime, but this helps enormously to develop their minds and to give them self-confidence,” he said.
Hartanto regularly heads north to visit villages in search of candidates. Sometimes he is contacted by the families, or he hears about a girl who has been approached by the mafia. This usually happens while they are still at school.
“I managed to save one girl who was leaving for Sudan the very next day. She was 17 years old. 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.”
Hartanto sees part of his work as persuasion. He has to convince the girls and their families that nursing is the best option for her future.
“I sold the program to that girl like a salesman,” he said with a laugh. “The man who was with her, a Thai, was not her father. He was with the mafia. They’re all local because they know the villages and the people living there.” The family, he added, was promised 30,000 Baht ($1,000). 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 lockdown to counter COVID-19, many Russian and Ukrainian women were being sex trafficked, but renowned tourism centers such as Pattaya are now virtually ghost towns because of Thailand’s closed borders. (See Global Geneva article on the pandemic and tourism in Thailand.)
Sometimes, too, the girls end up dead in shipping containers. Hartanto told me the police found 43 dead bodies in the Indonesian jungle — girls whose predicaments had proven dangerous with the authorities cracking down, so they were killed to prevent them from talking.
One of the problems, Hartanto 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 the rural areas is poor. Some cannot even tell the time.
“We have to start from the very basics,” he said. Everything is provided free: food, tuition, accommodation. The identity and often the location of the girls are kept secret, particularly if the mafia are still seeking to find those they have already “invested” in.
One positive point of being housed in the Wat Arun complex, he added, “is that it is protected by the Royal Thai Navy who have barracks just down the road.” As pointed out by several sex trafficking experts in Thailand, the police cannot necessarily be relied on. They are often complicit in the trafficking, particularly in the border areas.
Post-Pandemic: An Expected Resurge of Sex Trafficking
I first met Hartanto on August 17, 2019, at a hotel reception in Bangkok celebrating Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. He was there mainly to hobnob with the diplomats and business people, always on the hunt for funding and support for his center. Chatting with a United Nations official standing in line to meet the Indonesian ambassador, he immediately arranged for his trainees to spend a day at the UN’s Asia-Pacific regional campus in the Thai capital to learn more about how the international community operates. “It is important for them to be exposed to the world,” he said. “Such visits can be very inspiring for them.”
Over the years, Hartanto has been supported by numerous philanthropists, including private individuals and diplomats, but also foundations such as the US-based Virginia Toulmin Foundation and the JWS60 Foundation. On one of my visits to the center, for example, we had lunch with a Thai family who, as is the custom, had brought fresh fish, shrimp, and other offerings to have themselves blessed by the monks, all dressed in orange robes and chanting in one of the side temples of the center. Such families, whispered Hartanto, also make discreet contributions toward the girls’ education.
Much of the center’s support comes from donors, such as the Japanese who contribute scholarships. As Hartanto points out, 130,000 Baht ($4,340) per student is enough to cover all costs for the entire year. “So basically, if you think about, you can completely change a life for the better of one girl for less than $5,000,” he says.
There is also a need to continue with such work. While the coronavirus has put a temporary end to much of Thailand’s sex trafficking, it can be expected to resurge once foreign tourism picks up again. Prior to the pandemic, tourism — much of it from Europe, China, the Middle East, Russia, and North America — represented between 20 and 23 percent of the Thai economy, but some hospitality industry sources estimate that it may be as much as 33 percent. The pandemic has also affected the country’s burgeoning international medical tourism, which offers quality health and dental care at 40-80 percent cheaper to visitors from Australia, the United States, Canada, and other Western countries. Even if the pandemic has severely curbed health care jobs, notes Hartanto, it can be expected to improve once the situation is back to a new “normal.”
The Importance of Meditation
While no longer a monk, Hartanto still lives like one by respecting the 227 precepts of Buddhism. This includes only one meal a day, not touching a woman, and taking care of one’s body. “We need to cleanse both our minds and bodies. Meditation is the only way to do this,” he said. As a businessman, he added, he had suffered severe migraines and found himself constantly angry and impatient with others. “If we have negative emotions in our mind, such as anger, anxiety, and depression, we need to find the cause. And then cleanse it. This can help us to better understand what is happening.”
Hartanto remains in touch with a lot of the girls, who write regularly and keep him updated on their progress in their professional lives. Some even seek to reimburse their scholarships. Most work with hospitals and health centers in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. With a graduation rate of 97 percent, the center is considered one of the world’s most successful prevention and intervention centers by the US State Department.
During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Hartanto spent six months in the United States teaching what he calls “research meditation” with the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which seeks to help improve the quality of life and conditions for families in the United States. This included working with people suffering from PTSD and depression, such as New York Police Department officers still affected by 9/11 or military veterans who had done tours of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict zones. (See Global Geneva articles on PTSD.) Via Zoom he has been doing the same in Europe and Dubai, plus working with victims of mental ill-health.
“I always ask people about the definition of depression, and no one knows,” Hartanto said. “So we need to seek the cause, not the symptoms. We need to look into the memory. Today, we are seeing problems emerging from the use of mobile phones. People become obsessed and need to react immediately if there is a message. They don’t know how to let go. And yet we know that this is contributing to depression. The same goes for those police who killed George Floyd. What was in the minds of those policemen? The mind did not know how to let go, for eight minutes.”
Global Insights Magazine editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author. He is also director of Global Geneva Group’s Youth Writes initiative. Until recently, Girardet was based between Bangkok and Geneva.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Frank Hukriede / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and Rafael Antonio / Flickr.