In recent years, human trafficking has exploded onto the international stage as one of the most disturbing, complex and, many claim, pervasive issues of our time. Often dubbed “modern day slavery,” the focus of the movement that has sprung up to stop trafficking has been to “rescue” girls from situations of labor exploitation—specifically having to do with sex work. The problem with these tactics, and indeed, the entire movement to end human trafficking, is that often the most well intended of advocates do little to empower the women they are trying to “save.”
Land of Smiles responds to the crippled policies, practices and moralisms that underlie the anti-trafficking movement, by zooming in on Thailand and Burma, two countries in a region of the world known as an “infamous” trafficking hub. The story explores the way a U.S. funded NGO responds to Lipoh, a young Kachin sex worker caught in the wrong brothel at the wrong time. Trying in earnest to “rescue” this exploited “victim,” The NGO relies on Lipoh’s victim status in order to secure the prosecution of her supposed “traffickers.” But as the narrative unfolds, we soon discover that Lipoh does not see herself as a voiceless, agency-less trafficking victim. Rather, she shares emotional, social, financial and political bonds with both her “carrier” – the woman who transported her from Burma into Thailand—and her “Mama San”– the owner of the brothel where she worked. Far from experiencing her situation as oppressive, or akin to conditions of slavery, Lipoh finds strength in her relationships with her supposed “traffickers,” and will do anything to protect them. Such a contradictory understanding represents what feminist scholar Joan Scott described as a “corrective” to the problem of dismissing women’s perspectives that is so prevalent in traditional, positivist research. As a storyteller, by making Lipoh’s experience visible I want to challenge the normative construction of the trafficking victim and expose the histories and realities that have previously been obscured, buried, stigmatized and marginalized, time and time again. The musical seeks to shed light on the “story” currently being told about human trafficking—a story used by advocates to reinforce ideas of Western superiority on the global stage and moralisms about sex work in the developing world. This story is rooted in ideas about intimacy, rights, and women’s proper role in society. It also grapples with notions of modernization and colonialism. But most importantly, the story we tell about trafficking is our story. For it is our Western—indeed, American desire to rescue and prove ourselves “exceptional” on the world stage, that haunts us as a nation and a culture. I believe that unless we change these tropes, grapple with complexity, and embrace women in the developing world as our equals and our partners, the policies of the Western anti-trafficking movement will continue to fail.
Land of Smiles is an activist project. At the end of the performance as the audience makes their way out of the theater, I hope we will have disrupted—or at least caused questioning among—those who have the power to change anti-trafficking policy and adopt a more holistic approach to implementing solutions.