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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmers escape slavery at sea

Khmers escape slavery at sea

farmer.jpg
farmer.jpg

TWO young Cambodians are safely back in the country after narrowly escaping slave

labor and death threats on Thai fishing trawlers in Indonesia.

Sek Vy, 25, when told he would be killed, jumped into the ocean near the Straits of Malacca

On Oct 9 Sek Vy and Nieu Chhoun were returned from Jakarta through diplomatic channels

with harrowing accounts of how their attempts to work illegally on Thai fishing boats

degenerated into grueling ordeals of unremitting physical abuse and threats of murder

at the hands of their Thai shipmates.

During an exclusive interview with the Post in his home village of Prey Totoeung

in Siem Reap Province on Oct 12, Vy, 25, spoke bitterly of how his bid to escape

the poverty of farming by working on a Thai fishing trawler went terribly wrong.

"Other people in my village have [worked on Thai fishing trawlers] and made

money ... I wanted to work for a year then come back and start my own business,"

Vy said. "A 'middleman' [for Thai fishermen] in my village advised me on how

to illegally enter Thailand at [the border checkpoint of] Malai and get to the ocean."

Initially, Vy's gamble appeared to have paid off.

"After waiting on a beach for five days with other Khmer looking for fishing

jobs, a Thai fishing captain offered me and another [Khmer] a job," Vy said.

"The money he offered us was good ... Baht 3500 a month."

However, five days after his fishing trawler set off from Thailand for Indonesian

fishing grounds, Vy learned that he had in fact been "sold" to the Thai

ship as an unpaid, indentured laborer.

"When we arrived [in Indonesia waters], the ship's captain told me that he had

paid a lot of money for me so I wouldn't get any money for the work I did,"

Vy said. "He said that the price he'd paid for me was equivalent to one tonne

of fish."

Vy's virtual slave status was further confirmed by the brutal treatment he and his

Khmer co-worker suffered at the hands of the crew.

"[The Thais] acted like they hated us ... We were cursed, beaten and kicked

by the captain and crew every day, for no reason," Vy said. "The Thai workers

didn't have to work very hard, but we had to work all day, all the time, with no

chance to rest."

Within days, the constant mistreatment and physical abuse Vy suffered from his Thai

employers took a profoundly more sinister turn.

"The captain started saying that we would soon be thrown off the boat and that

he and the other Thais would all "give us a phou [strangle us with fishing rope]

before throwing us off," Vy recalled. "One of the Thai workers told me

the day before I escaped that it was almost time for us to be killed."

The mounting threats to his life led Vy to take desperate action to prevent what

he was convinced was an imminent possibility of being murdered by his Thai employers.

On his 15th day on the ship, Vy "sabotaged" the trawler's engine, then

leaped into the ocean near the entrance to the Straits of Malacca with a water bottle

and life preserver.

"There was no land anywhere in sight, but I knew I couldn't wait or I wouldn't

live," Vy said. "I signaled to the other Khmer that we had to escape, that

our time was almost up, but he didn't follow me ... I'm sure he's dead now."

After 12 hours of floating in the sea, Vy was picked up by a passing Philippine cargo

vessel and brought to Sumatra. After 10 days in police detention on Sumatra, Vy was

taken into the custody of Cambodian Embassy personnel in Jakarta.

"Some people here in my village have laughed at my story ... They say maybe

I jumped off the ship because I was lazy and didn't want to work," Vy said.

"They don't know how huge and frightening the ocean is ... how the sky connects

with the sea and goes on for ever."

Vy's story has had a more sympathetic reception from government officials aware of

the plight of Cambodians who encounter unscrupulous employers abroad.

"Thousands of Cambodians go to Thailand and Malaysia every year to work illegally,

but it's very, very dangerous," said Prok Sarouen, Chief of Immigration Police.

"These workers are like people walking alone into the dark ... they can disappear

and no-one knows what happens to them."

An Interior Ministry spokesperson who interviewed both Vey and Chhoun after their

return to Cambodia on Oct 11 confirmed that Chhoun escaped from similar treatment

at the hands of Thai fishermen.

"Chhoun was warned by Khmer living around the Thai port area that he probably

would never return if he got work on a fishing trawler," the source said. "He

was told that Khmer workers are often killed [by their Thai employers] at the end

of fishing season because the boat owners don't want to pay them."

Attempts by the Post to contact Thai Embassy officials in Phnom Penh for comment

on Vy's allegations were unsuccessful.

Vy himself vows never again to leave Prey Totoeung in search of easier money in Thailand

or elsewhere.

"I'm never going back to Thailand again ... I'm going to shave my head and be

a farmer from now on," Vy assured the Post. "And I'll warn all the young

people in my village not to risk looking for work outside of Cambodia ... It's better

to be poor than to be dead."

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