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

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