Thailand, 2013: The Hidden Agony of a 21st Century Slave Trade

16 January 2013


PHUKET: Ismail has been bought as a slave, the way hundreds of Rohingya are bought in Thailand, a country that is supposed to be free of slavery.

His body still bears the unhealed wounds of a horrendous beating. He says he was handcuffed, forced to lie face down and thrashed without mercy.
Held captive by modern flesh traders in a strange country, he did what uppity slaves always have done – he tried to escape.

This is Thailand, 2013. Ismail’s broken body is a shocking indictment of a nation not yet free of corruption and the nightmare that is 21st century slavery.

Ismail’s fortune improved a little when he was bought this month for 40,000 baht by a Phuket community group. These good people wanted to save just one slave among the hundreds, possibly even thousands, still being abused in Thailand.
The recent catalogue of raids on Thai-Malaysia transit border camps where Rohingya men, women and children are being traded for cash shows the despicable underbelly of modern Thailand.
Until recently, the flesh trade has been allowed to flourish, with local politicians running the camps and officials getting their corrupt cut.
Raids in the past few days have ”rescued” hundreds of Rohingya but, as Ismail revealed to Phuketwan last night, other horror camps remain untouched.
The 47-year-old Rohingya, stateless like 800,000 others in Burma, left a wife and seven children near Sittwe, a large town in hate-ridden Rakhine state, on November 14.
He paid 200,000 kyat to a people smuggler to take his chances among 61 passengers who included four women and six children. They boarded an old open boat to sail to a brighter future, somewhere, anywhere.
The boats of people smugglers puttered out to meet them off the coast of Ranong, the port on the border between Thailand and Burma.
Transferred into a convoy of minivans, Ismail and his fellow travellers sped south, past the international holiday island of Phuket, to a captives’ camp at Su Ngai Kolok in the province of Narathiwat.
There, his torment began. Over about 40 days and nights, Ismail learned the reality of Thailand’s modern slavery.
Ordered to raise fresh cash to earn his freedom, Ismail failed to contact the one person he thought could help, his sister-in-law in Malaysia.
The number rang, and rang. There was never an answer. Each day in the camp brought fresh agony.
He and hundreds of others, he says, were each fed just two spoonfulls of rice a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.
When he could bear it no longer, he fled into the surrounding jungle. He did not get far.
Brought back by armed guards, he was stripped, handcuffed, and held on the ground. He was then flogged with a cane.
”I did not see who did the beating,” Ismail said. ”But it was very painful. They flogged the heels and soles of my feet as well.”
Just to make sure Ismail did not forget, his tormentors burned his back with a candle flame and stabbed him in the leg with a sharpened construction rod.
Captive Rohingya children looked on and heard his screams. When the beating ended, there was no medical treatment, nothing for the gaping wounds, he said.
On January 5 when Ismail arrived on a bus to greet the Phuket group who had saved him by raising 40,000 baht and paying it to his captors, he was still barely able to shuffle.
When he stripped to show his back and legs to the group, some of them shed tears. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Thailand in 2013.
Other captive slaves had been killed by floggings or shot dead trying to escape, he said. Burmese, Thais and Rohingya too were among the traffickers.
Many of those who cannot raise cash for a passage to Malaysia are sold off to slavery on fishing boats.
The pain and suffering of being a stateless Rohingya must at times seem never-ending.
In the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Burmese government since June, Ismail’s village was not torched the way that so many others have been, he said.
The Buddhists who were once the neighbors of the Rohingya were removed, leaving the unwelcome Muslims in isolation. With nine mouths to feed, Ismail said it quickly became apparent that life was going to be made unbearable.
The two kilos of rice he needed each day to feed his family could no longer be purchased because Army patrols always took most of his catch of fish.
With a heavy heart, he boarded a boat and farewelled his children, five boys and two girls, the youngest aged three.
In a country where Rohingya remain persecuted and oppressed, the future of Ismail’s family remains as uncertain as his own. On Phuket now, kept hidden from authorities, he has a chance.

Thailand, 2013: The Hidden Agony of a 21st Century Slave Trade

By Chutima Sidasathian

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