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Faint tunes drift out from an empty pub as darkness fills the misty valley of downtown Mae Hong Son. A handful of local diners and the odd souvenir shop light up its main street, but this seems to be about as far as nightlife gets in this remote northern Thai province. Recent events have cast it in another light: An ongoing police investigation has uncovered a prostitution ring involving minors, patronised by government officials and even allegedly run by a police senior sergeant major over a span of at least two years.
Three young women say they were coerced into the trade. Mae Hong Son's governor has had to fend off allegations that he bought sex from a minor, while a local politician from Nonthaburi province north-west of Bangkok confessed to the crime.
Nine policemen have been sacked so far, including three accused of gang-raping a minor. Perhaps most damning is the allegation that senior government officials visiting Mae Hong Son are routinely feted with food and drink, and offered sex with girls. As the probe widens, human rights activists fear there will be attempts to hide evidence of official complicity.
The scandal has riveted a nation, and turned the small border province, once touted as Thailand's "happiest" province and better known for its rugged mountains and ethnic minorities, into an unwitting icon of child sex tourism. Three alleged victims have been moved out of the province under a witness protection programme. According to those close to the investigation, one was just 14 when she was beaten up and forced to sell sex. Mae Hong Son-based social worker Thiphawan Kamonthammachot, who has spoken to her, said the girl had to work whenever she got a call from her pimp.
Non-governmental organisations and law enforcement officials have long observed that certain regions in northern Thailand are vulnerable to child prostitution. A report last year on the sexual exploitation of children in tourism, published by Bangkok- based non-profit organisation Ecpat International, noted: "Children from ethnic minorities, such as those from hill tribe communities in northern Thailand, are especially vulnerable.