Still on the Run: Trafficked Burmese Recount Murder at Sea – The Irrawaddy


Escaped Burmese trafficking victims relax after work in their shack in Pathumthani (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

PATHUMTHANI, Thailand – As the wind-whipped rain made its staccato finger-drum rattle on the shack’s tin roof, *Saw and four Burmese co-workers sat cross-legged on the roughly-bonded plywood that had been pieced together to make an elevated floor.

Last year Saw spent seven months onboard a Thai fishing vessel, where he claims he witnessed the murder of two Burmese colleagues.

“I saw them throw two men to the sea”, recalls the 32 year old, almost-blurting out the revelation in his eagerness for catharsis. Frozen with fear at the time, he said that he was “too scared to move, to do anything”.

The two men, who Saw said were both in their early twenties, put up a final, futile, agonising struggle. “They fought, but with the noise from the engine and the sea, I could not hear, though I could see,” Saw continues.

“There were too many, the men who threw them in were Mon, they were like the right-hand men of the captain, a Thai.”

Pausing, as if having to tell himself that he really witnessed such horror that day, he repeated – “they just grabbed them and threw them into the waves. That was it.”

Asked why he thought the men were murdered, Saw says “it was like the policy”. The unwanted and feeble were discarded overboard, as “they were sick, weak, they could no longer work. They were just in the way”.

Outside, the construction site at Lamluka in Pathumthani, an hour from central Bangkok, had turned into a cement and mud swamp, as Thailand felt the tail-end of the Nock-Ten storm that killed over fifty people in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Sodden by the downpour, the pathway through the site had turned to mud, a thick gluey clay sticking to clothes and shoes and splashing up onto faces and hair. The sludge was everywhere, even dulling and browning the usually creamy-white thanaka paste – a Burmese make-up from the ground-up bark of the thanaka tree – which adorned the faces of two of the women listening to Saw’s story.


Burmese migrant workers, some of whom have escaped trafficking, make their way 'home' after work at the Pathumthani building site (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

He says he spent seven months at sea, during which he was beaten, poorly-fed and forced to work at least fifteen hours per day, before escaping on November 10 2010, when the boat docked with catch at Ar Chong, along the Gulf of Thailand.

Before all that, Saw made his way from Myitkina in Kachin State in Burma’s north to the Burma-Thailand border in Karen State. He was hoping to find work in Mae Sot, a border town linked to Burma’s Myawaddy by a now-closed bridge, usually one of the main land and trade links between the two southeast Asian neighbours.

Through what he says was his own stupidity, he was captured by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a largely pro-Government ethnic Karen militia that split from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in 1994. Human rights groups have long accused the DKBA of human trafficking, saying the militia targets vulnerable Burmese seeking to find work in Thailand. The DKBA forced Saw to work as a logger, though Saw says he managed to flee after a few days, finding his way to Minlatpan border crossing, and a broker known as Ko Kyaw, who had already recruited 38 people. He linked the group up with a second broker, whose name Saw forgets, in Mae Sot across the border. This second agent who would assist the group in finding work, according to Ko Kyaw.

Saw signed up, as the group was told they would have to work just two months onboard a fishing vessel to repay debts owed to the brokers for helping the group find work in Thailand. Heartened by what turned out to be cruel ruse, they started their trek on April 19 2010, hiking and hacking through jungles, bypassing villages and dodging police checkpoints en route to Ar Chong, east of Bangkok.

“Sometimes we walked all night”, he recalls, “other times we made a fire, as the broker told us that man-eating tigers were in the area”.

However tigers were not the only threat they faced on their arduous nine day trek south. “Two men, I guess maybe Thai villagers, robbed us one night”, he says, seemingly embarrassed by what comes next. “There were more than 30 of us, but just two of them. But they had guns and managed to get money from some of us before running off into the night”.

One woman, who Saw says was “about 27”, was injured during the long walk. “I think her shoes gave out, one of her feet was giving her pain”, he recalls.

Saw says the woman could no longer walk. He would not say whether the broker made the call on what to do, but with half the journey still ahead, the decision was made. “We left her behind in the jungle”, he said, exhaling, eyes down, marking the first break in an almost stream-of-consciousness style telling.

Later, Saw says he worked up the courage to try escape from the boat after being told he would have to work at least one year onboard the vessel. “If I was to stay longer I would not have life anymore’, he lamented.

His eventual escape was planned and undertaken with a colleague from Rakhine in western Burma, who had also been trafficked and held in debt bondage onboard the fishing boat. “It was our second try”, he says. “The first time we were caught by police. They brought us back to the ship and then we were beaten and threatened.”

Lesson learned, he says “the second time we made sure to avoid any police or army. We took a bus to Bangkok and have been here since”.

"Saw', in yellow, tells how he witnessed 2 men murdered at sea. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

While life is now much better for Saw, his ordeal has not ended.”I have had four jobs since coming here”, he says, “as most of them have not been steady work, so I just move on”.

To better regulate its migrant worker sector, Thailand introduced a registration process for illegal or unregistered migrant workers, which ran from June 15-July 14 2011. Almost 700,000 Burmese registered during that month, meaning that now almost 1.5 million Burmese are now entitled by law to work in Thailand.

While the process has been a success and has been broadly welcomed, it entails some damaging side-effects. According to the Thailand section of the latest US State Dept. survey of global trafficking trends, “observers remained concerned that the process to legalize migrant workers with its associated fees, as well as costs imposed by poorly regulated and unlicensed labor brokers, increased the vulnerability of migrant workers to trafficking and debt bondage.”

Saw arrived at the Pathumthani construction site only last Sunday, July 31. “I ran from the last job”, he said, claiming that the subcontractor he worked there for sought an extra THB3000 for processing his legalisation papers with the Thai authorities.

“I tried to bargain, but she would not listen. She threatened to call the police, so I ran, I panicked”, he acknowledges.

He says he knew some of the Burmese working at this site, so came here. “I have work here already”, he says, though some of the other workers have been told that they will not be paid until the entire housing project is completed.

However the previous subcontractor has his documentation, and the original copy of his registration with the Thai authorities. “Now I don’t know what I can do now without my papers, or how to get them”, he says.

*Saw is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the trafficking victim.

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