Trafficked Burmese Recount Murder at Sea

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

As the wind-whipped rain made its staccato finger-drum rattle on the shack's tin roof, Saw* and four Burmese coworkers sat cross-legged on the roughly bonded plywood that had been pieced together to make an elevated floor. Outside, the construction site at Lamluka in Pathumthani, an hour from central Bangkok, had turned into a cement and mud swamp, as Thailand got the tail-end of the Nock-Ten storm that killed over 50 people in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Sodden by the downpour, the pathway through the site had turned to mud, the 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 makeup made from the ground bark of the thanaka tree—that adorned the faces of two of the women sitting to listen to Saw's story.

"I saw them throw two men into the sea," recalled the 32-year-old Saw, 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 he said were both in their early 20s, put up a final, futile, agonizing struggle. "They fought, but with the noise from the engine and the sea, I could not hear, though I could see," Saw continued. "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, he repeated, as if still stunned by what he saw that day. "They just grabbed them and threw them into the waves. That was it."

Asked why he thought the men were murdered, Saw said, "It was like the policy." The unwanted and feeble were discarded overboard. "They were sick, weak, they could no longer work. They were just in the way."

Saw said he spent seven months at sea, during which he was beaten, poorly fed and forced to work at least 15 hours per day, before escaping on Nov. 10, 2010, when the boat docked with catch at Ar Chong.

Before all that, Saw made his way from Myitkyina in northern Burma's Kachin State to the Thai-Burmese border. 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 neighbors.

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 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 he says he managed to flee after a few days, finding his way to the 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, 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 aboard 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 a 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, near Rayong, east of Bangkok.

"Sometimes we walked all night," he recalled. "Other times we built 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 said, as if somewhat embarrassed by what came 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 said was about 27, was injured during the long walk. "I think her shoes gave out; one of her feet was giving her pain," he recalled. The woman could no longer walk. Saw 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 pause in what was so far an almost stream-of-consciousness recounting of his story.

Saw said he worked up the courage to try escape from the boat after being told he would have to work at least one year on 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 Arakan State in western Burma, who had also been trafficked and held in debt bondage aboard the fishing boat. "It was our second try," he said. "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 said. "The second time we made sure to avoid any police or army. We took a bus to Bangkok and have been here ever since."

While life is now much better for Saw, his ordeal has not ended. "'I have had four jobs since coming here," he said. "As most of them have not been steady work, I just keep moving on."

To better regulate its migrant-worker sector, Thailand introduced a registration process for illegal or unregistered migrant workers, which ran from June 15 to July 14. Almost 700,000 Burmese registered during that period, meaning that there are now almost 1.5 million Burmese 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 U.S. State Department 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 July 31. "I ran from the last job," he said, claiming that the subcontractor he worked for there sought an extra 3,000 baht ($100) for processing his legalization papers with the Thai authorities.

"I tried to bargain, but she would not listen," Saw said. "She threatened to call the police, so I ran. I panicked."

He said he came here because he knew some of the Burmese working at this site. "I have work here already," he said, although 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. "I don't know what I can do now without my papers, or how to get them," he said.


*Saw is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the trafficking victim. His case has been independently assessed and verified by academic and NGO staff working on trafficking issues who asked that their identities be withheld.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy:

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