Finding the ‘Ashims’

Organized Crime & Prostitution- The Nexus (Part II)

 Sonam Dorji & Usha Drukpa,  Thimphu


The truth, known to many has come out. Thimphu has scores of commercial sex workers, but the existence of “Ashims” and their role in prostitution had not been clearly established.

The jig-saw puzzle of Thimphu’s flesh trade would be incomplete without verifying and individually meeting them. This was a Herculean task, but we ventured forward, once again seeking cooperation from few of the commercial sex workers.

Tshomo, working in a drayang was the first to cooperate. A mother of two children, Tshomo said she has friends who work at the whims of the “Ashims.” “It is sad to see a woman take advantage of other women, by acting as the middle person and siphoning a huge sum of money. Unfortunately, the girls have to depend on them, starting from accommodation to even finding clients, sometimes,” she said.

However, not everyone is like Tshomo. Choeki, who works under an “Ashim” was furious. “Why do you want to know about us? It is risky to share information about us because the police may crack down and render us jobless. We may even land up behind the bars. If this happens will you take us out,” she asked.

It took a few minutes for the silent atmosphere to break. Choeki looked at me and my colleague and then said. “If what you are doing will help the people then I will tell you something about the ‘Ashims’,” she said. Those were golden words for us.

“Well, I don’t know much about her. I don’t even know whether she is helping us or exploiting us. I was not forced into this so-called ‘flesh trade’ by anyone. In fact, I didn’t know that I was a commercial sex worker until I realized how deep I had fallen in this business,” she said.

Choeki said that after completing the 12th grade, she looked for a job, since her parents could not afford to pay for her higher studies. “I did not get a job but I did meet a guy with whom I fell in love instantly. I moved in with him thinking that life would be better but later, I found out that he was already married and had two children,” she continued.

“I was shattered and broken, both mentally and emotionally. I then started drinking and hanging around with men. This is how I got in this shell and now I don’t think I have an option break from this cage,” she said.

“I met Ashim two years ago here in Thimphu. A friend introduced me to her one night in a party hall and we discussed quite a lot on many issues, mostly personal. She was an elderly lady who looked very affluent,” Choeki recollected.  “Ashim often calls me when there are clients who seek for escort service. She takes her cut and deposits the balance amount in my account,” Choeki said. When asked about the money that the “Ashims” take, Choeki said that it depended on the amount the client had paid. “Sometimes I get about Nu 5,000 and at times more.” Choeki added that she never questions “Ashim” on the amount given.

Her friend Karma, who was silent all along then, speaks. “Unlike movies, Ashim is not surrounded by big and scary bodyguards who are ready to shoot  at her command. Ashim only helps us to find customers. If I deny her, she will send some other girls. But yes, it is true that we pay certain amount to her,”

“Is it possible for us to meet your Ashim today?” I asked.

“I am not sure but try your luck. I heard there is a place where she often visits with her friends. I will give you the address,” Karma replied.

She then tells us about a popular discotheque and the rough facial and body description. We thank them and move to the address provided to us.

Inside the discotheque, we see several men and women. Our eyes roll around the discotheque, bar and karokae room. “It is like finding a needle in a haystack,” my colleague tells me. In order to quickly find out if the “Ashim” is there, I go to the dance floor and ask my colleague to check the bar and karokae room. It is definitely a difficult task. To my eyes, most fits the description that we were given.

From the other side, my colleague shakes his head, indicating that his search was futile. I leave the dance floor. We ask for a glass of mango juice each, our eyes still looking around. In a corner of the discotheque we see four women. They are not young and fit the description given by Karma. We also see some girls moving to them, talking and then leaving the discotheque.

Our subconscious mind tells us that one of them is “Ashim.” But which one?  We think about going to them. But my colleague stops me. “We may get into problems. There is always another day.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with a senior Royal Bhutan Police official, he said they are aware of commercial sex workers in the town.

“We have gathered some information and we are trying to dig more. But if a girl is doing it on her own will, we cannot do anything. We cannot put them to the task due to the lack of concrete evidences. This is our major hurdle,” he said.

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