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Battered boatmen return

Seven Cambodian men who underwent a horrifying ordeal that saw them enslaved aboard fishing boats will be reunited with their relieved families this morning, as more details emerge of the brutal treatment exacted on them. 

The men, who will return through a coordinated effort by NGOs, the Cambodian embassy in Malaysia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Malaysian immigration authorities, said they were subjected to shocking human rights abuses on the boats. But even before the men were trafficked onto the vessels, some of them were hunted down by a farm owner in Thailand, shot at from a car and severely beaten, an investigation by the Community Legal Education Centre reveals.

Three men – Phath Sophay, Tith Sopheak and Sar Ra – were sent to the farm in Thailand’s Chon Buri province by a broker in Cambodia promising lucrative salaries in April this year. But when 29-year-old Tith Sopheak overhead the owner saying that “they should be sold to a fishing boat” after one of them caught a fever and the rest sustained scorpion bites, he panicked, the CLEC report states.

They escaped the farm on the same day they arrived and began a trek through unknown territory, traversing mountains until they finally arrived in a town called Takeap.

They were greeted by a man who offered to take the lost men to his own farm. Having given them rice and encouraging them to rest, he said he was leaving to buy them more food.

Instead he made a phone call and shortly afterward, the same farm owner who had planned to sell them to a fisherman, arrived – allegedly firing shots at the men from his car. The report said they dodged the bullets but were summarily rounded up, beaten with sticks, kicked, beaten again and then sold to a fisherman, who had an hour to pick them up otherwise “the victims would be put in a big basket and left until they died”.

Raced off to a fishing boat in the notoriously clandestine Thai seaside town of Pak Nam, they were immediately greeted with an ominous sign of things to come. The report cites Sar Ra as saying: “When the boat reached the deep sea, the owner pulled out a gun and shot into the sea to test the weapon. We would not dare to speak, being too scared we would be mistreated on the boat.”

They were mistreated , in a fashion most of us would find hard to imagine. Their ordeal on the boats is perhaps best illustrated by the experience of one victim who reportedly witnessed a captain lie crew members on the deck of a boat while drunkenly firing at them for amusement. Those who were hit were tossed overboard, while all were subjected to unendurable working hours, death threats, at times were force-fed drugs and had their passports taken.

These conditions prompted the men to engineer a daring escape off the coast of the Malaysian town of Tanjung Manis, which led them to work in a plywood factory before they were rescued in April.

Chart Toho, the 30-year-old brother of Phath Sophay from Pursat province’s Krakor district, will greet his brother at Phnom Penh international airport this morning, three months after he was rescued.

“When he called to my family, my mum thanked God. My family have always waited for him to come back,” he said.

Tith Sopeak’s mother, 56-year-old Eng Don from Battambang’s Sampov Loan district, said yesterday she had feared for her only son when he went to Thailand, having heard it was dangerous, but agreed to the move because they were poor. “My life seems to be alive again now that my son has escaped the danger,” she said.

She believes his wife, who went to work on the same farm but was reportedly spared from her husband’s fate, is still in Thailand. She hasn’t heard from her, has no contact details and is worried.

Four other Cambodian men, Hun Baraing, Kriel Ratanak, Nouv Vuthy and Phan Sarak, who escaped boats and were rescued in June, will also be repatriated to Cambodia tomorrow. Aegile Fernandez, anti-human trafficking coordinator of Malaysia-based rights group Tenaganita, said the men were relieved to be going home, but also traumatised by their experiences and treatment in Malaysia.  “They are happy yet they are also sad because five of their friends have not been rescued, two are still somewhere out in the sea and three have been moved away where we are unable to find them,” she said.

“They were not respected as trafficking victims but looked upon as though they were criminals. They were not kept in a shelter, they were kept in a prison.”

She said Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand needed to come together to put an end to the widespread practice of trafficking fishermen.

“Otherwise we will just be play fighting, we will be rescuing them and deporting them and will not have any long-term solution,” she said.

Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at CLEC, said yesterday their return will now enable the process of prosecuting those who trafficked the men to move forward.

“I was talking with his Excellency, Chiv Phally, Deputy Director of Anti-Human Trafficking [and Juvenile Protection Department at the Ministry of Interior] and he also said we should work together to find the brokers involved in the trafficking and arrest them,” he said.



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