By Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison
October 12, 2014
TAKUAPA: Fifty-three boatpeople captured north of Phuket have made remarkable allegations that they were unwilling travellers from Bangladesh, kidnapped one by one by gangs and forced onto a fishing boat by human traffickers.
If the claims are authenticated, then the exodus of the stateless Rohingya down Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast from Burma and Bangladesh is now being exploited by brutal mercenaries, interested only in the profit that can be made from selling people.
Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security is applying to a court in the town of Takuapa, north of Phuket, on Sunday to have the 53 boatpeople declared victims of human trafficking.
A declaration by the court would prevent local police quickly deporting the group as illegal migrants and oblige officers to investigate the evidence of mass kidnapping gleaned during several hours of interviews last night.
All of the boatpeople were questioned individually over their allegations. Each dramatic first-person account supported claims that a kidnapping gang is now snatching people in Bangladesh, simply because the process of abusing captives in the jungle camps in southern Thailand has become so lucrative.
Large sums are usually extorted from the captives’ relatives before the victims are taken across the border to Malaysia.
But if what these boatpeople say is true, they have all been kidnapped solely for the purpose of extorting ransoms. They haven’t wanted to flee to Malaysia.
The claims and the theory have yet to be proven by independent authorities. But a Phuketwan reporter who helped to interview 25 of the 53 men into the early hours of today said that the stories were consistent – and nightmarish.
An electrician who said he was snatched by a gang of men after being called to repair a house in Cox’s Bazaar said: ”I worry about my mother. I feed her medicine every day. Since I was kidnapped, she will have had nobody to give her the medicine.”
A fisherman enticed to repair a net on a stranger’s boat said he was grabbed and had his wrists tied. He said: ”I was kidnapped. I don’t have relatives in Malaysia. I wasn’t planning on leaving Bangladesh in this way. My wife and children are there and will not know where I am.”
A farmer who said he went to repair a roof was locked inside with four others. He said: ”They bound my arms behind my back and took us all at night to a small boat, then onto a bigger boat.”
A 17-year-old boy said he was a student with no intention of quitting his schoolwork. He said: ”I went to update my telephone credit at a shop and a man grabbed me and put his hand over my mouth. I ended up in the boat. Mt parents will be wondering where I am.”
A market delivery man from Cox’s Bazaar, recently arrived from Rakhine state in Burma (Myanmar), said: ”Four or five men persuaded me to go to a house for a better job. I went with them and was beaten and then taken to the boat.”
A Bangladesh tourist from another town who went to visit the sea said he was offered a guided tour. ”The guides took me onto a boat. Before I could say anything, they kept taking me out to sea. They told me I was going to Malaysia.”
The men said they were transported in the airless and windowless hold of a fishing boat for five days, south from Cox’s Bazaar to a jungle-covered island off Thailand’s coast.
Local municipal authorities, acting on a tipoff, arrested the 53 men as they were being held in a plantation by the roadside near Takuapa about 4am yesterday.
Two Thai men, local people, have been arrested and are being held pending an outcome to the human trafficking application in court.
One of the boatpeople showed whiplash woulds on his neck that he said were the result of abuses in the secret jungle camp off the coast. Others said that there were 310 people on the boat from Cox’s Bazaar.
Some boatpeople had been trucked south before them, and more, still being held on the island, were to follow. Authorities raided the secret island camp late yesterday and found it disused and empty.
Most of the men apprehended yesterday are Rohingya living in a UNHCR camp in Bangladesh.