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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kidnapped on the high seas

Kidnapped on the high seas

Lured with promises of work and money, Kouey Raksmey ended up

enslaved for years on a Thai fishing boat. As Leonie Sherman explains,

his story is just one of millions in the region, but with media and NGO

attention focused on the flesh trade, few seem to have


After her son had been gone a year, Sarun Ma switched

from praying for his return to praying that his soul would rest in peace. She

had heard about the trafficking of men in Thailand and given up all hope of ever

seeing him again.

Kouey Raksmey wasn't dead, but there were certainly

times during his three-year ordeal when he wished he were.

In June of

2001, at the age of 21, the former nightclub singer signed up for a 10-to-15 day

stint working on a Thai fishing boat. He was held as a slave for more than three

years before finally making his escape in August of 2004.

NGO workers

fear that the trafficking and exploitation of men on Thai fishing boats is

widespread, but there are no reliable statistics.

"This is an area of

trafficking that has been overlooked," says Ann Horsley, project coordinator at

the International Organization of Migration (IOM). "There's so much anecdotal

evidence, but ... the problem has not been sufficiently


Since 2001, the IOM has records of almost 100 male fishermen

who have been repatriated from Thailand, but the scale of the problem is likely

to be far greater.

Globally, an estimated 12.3 million people are

trafficked for labor with more than three quarters of that number coming from

the Asia Pacific region, according to a report released by the International

Labor Organization (ILO) in May 2005. The report estimated that less than 10

percent of labor trafficking victims in Asia and the Pacific end up in

commercial sex work, while almost two thirds of them, or 6 million people, are

coerced into working in fisheries, agriculture and other economic sectors.

The roots of such trafficking are usually lack of employment and

educational opportunities in rural communities, and poverty. According to the

2005 ILO report, most forced labor in the Mekong River region happens after

voluntary - if ill-prepared and uninformed - migration.

But behind the

scant statistics are people with harrowing stories of hardship.


left his small village near Battambang and headed across the border, drawn by

promises of good money in Thailand. The captain of a fishing boat in Phuket gave

him a job and promised they would return within 15 days.

He didn't see land

again for six months.

As Raksmey recounts his story, his first week at

sea was lost in a haze of seasickness so debilitating he couldn't eat or sleep.

The 34 Cambodians and five Thai men on the boat were forced to work long hours,

deprived of sleep, and received no pay for their exhausting labor. They ate only

the fish they caught and meager portions of rice, often resorting to eating raw

fish to avoid starvation.

When the boat finally docked six months later,

the captain, Thay Chun, told the men that they would be arrested by police and

thrown in jail as illegal immigrants if they tried to escape. Fear prompted all

the men to remain on the boat. They left for sea three days later.


captain feared the men might try to escape if they returned to Thailand, so he

took the boat to Indonesia, but hit a submerged reef en route and was forced to

return to Phuket in Thailand for repairs.

According to Kouey, a Phuket

woman named Chhay Mouy owns the boat he worked on and six others just like it.

The fleet, powered by crews of exploited laborers from Cambodia, Thailand and

Burma, often fish illegally in protected waters.

In Phuket, Chun promised

his crew members 10,000 baht each if they would stay and work for five more

months. The prospect of earning a substantial sum of money was enough to keep

all the men with the boat. The captain then gave each crew member $30, their

first payment in almost a year. Kouey used his money to buy tobacco, noodles and

a lot of coffee, which he says he needed to stay awake during the long hours of

forced labor.

From Phuket, the boat headed back out to Indonesia, where

they searched for fish for two months without luck. During stormy seas Kouey was

hit in the arm by a piece of flying metal that smashed bones and tore open a

long, deep gash in his right arm.

Chun accompanied him back to Thailand

on a small boat, where doctors inserted a metal plate to replace the crushed

bones in Kouey's forearm.

After six weeks in the hospital, Kouey was

released into Songkhla province in southern Thailand. He heard that his boat was

still out at sea and hitched a ride on another boat, determined to find his crew

and the 10,000 baht that he was now less than two months away from


When he found the boat again, however, he was told he would

need to work an additional five months to receive payment. Caught out at sea,

with no means of escape and no money, he was at the mercy of his captain and

remained with the boat.

The boat returned to Indonesian waters once more

and was apprehended by the coast guard for fishing in protected waters. The

owner bailed them out and the entire crew was released on the condition that

they return to Thailand.

Chun ignored the order and kept fishing in

Indonesia; soon the entire crew was behind bars, having been apprehended by the

coast guard again. After a week in jail, the owner bailed them out once more,

and this time Chun headed for Thailand.

When the boat landed in Rayong,

Chun gave each crew member $100. Kouey and his friends - all 34 of the

Cambodians - bribed Thai police officers to take them to the border. Because the

crew had bought the protection of police, Chun was powerless to bring them


Horsley, the IOM projects officer, says intervention by Thai

authorities is common.

"I've heard a number of stories of people being

transported back to the border by Thai police," says Horsley.

. . . .


While human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a hot issue that

attracts aid money, the trade in male laborers has yet to capture the attention

of donors and the general community. This leaves the men who survive the often

grim ordeals isolated and vulnerable to repeating the cycle if they manage to

escape their captors.

While some short-term programs have been developed

to try to help specific groups of recently returned men, there are currently no

preventative or rehabilitation projects in Cambodia.

A spokesman for the

Thai embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the issue, and a senior

official at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training said that it was

difficult to protect illegal workers abroad. Neither source would speak on the


"Quite clearly, women and children are more vulnerable to

trafficking because of cultural considerations," says Shelley Preece, advisor to

the NGO Legal Services for Children and Women (LSCW). "But men are also

vulnerable, particularly once they cross the border into Thailand. They have no

money, no support system, they don't speak the language and they are often at

the mercy of unscrupulous employers."

LSCW is working on a program in

Trat, just across the Thai border from Koh Kong, aimed at helping migrants from

Cambodia who work in Thailand. They hope to educate these migrant workers about

the working conditions they are likely to find in Thailand and help them figure

out strategies to migrate safely. LSCW will use community campaigns, leaflets

and video campaigns to get the word out beginning July 15.

"We're only

focusing on Trat because of limited resources," Preece says, adding that this

problem is not limited to one town or province.

. . . . .


Sowathara, a human rights monitor for LICADHO, looks at the wider context when

he thinks about ways to deal with male trafficking.

"To fix this problem

will be a big job," Sowathara says. "Education is the first part. The Ministry

of Labor should create a curriculum to educate people in rural areas about this

trafficking. Many of them cannot read, so perhaps radio can be an effective


Ultimately, though, Sowa-thara believes the government needs to

attract foreign investment and thus increase job opportunities for young men in

Cambodia. He thinks changing the economic reality of young men in Cambodia could

put an end to human trafficking across the Thai border.

"We need to

create an effective legal system, an efficient banking system, and have peaceful

political stability," Sowathara says. "Then we can create opportunities for

foreign investment and create jobs for people here."

For those who do

find themselves trafficked, getting back to Cambodia is not the end of the

ordeal. Many men face crippling debt or feel a sense of shame that prevents them

returning to their home village.

Kouey is lucky; he was welcomed back by

relatives and is currently living in the family home.

Kouey's mother,

Sarun Ma, is a cheerful woman whose face lights up when she talks about the day

her son returned. "I've never been so happy in my life," she says, as she nurses

the most recent of her eight children.

"We know what he went through is

horrible ... so we try to just give him lots of time to heal. We're not rushing

him to find a job or anything," Kouey's stepfather, Leng Yon


Kouey's mother and stepfather see only positive changes in him

since his return.

"He was so feisty when he left," says Sarun Ma "Now

he's all grown up, he understands his family is poor and [he] demands less," she

pauses to laugh. "He's really helpful around the house, too!"

"Before he

didn't think," adds his stepfather, Leng Yon. "Now he thinks about the future,

he thinks about making a living and getting a job." He pauses and adds, "I don't

see any negative changes; it's all been positive."

But despite the warm

welcome home, Kouey finds it difficult to move on with his life and struggles

with symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.


can't stop thinking about the years of abuse on the fishing boat. He is unable

to concentrate or hold down a steady job, and he is physically weak from the

endless toil. He can't imagine getting married or having children and is afraid

that his experience will haunt him for the rest of his life.

"I regret

the mistake I made every day," Kouey says. "I could have gotten so much done for

my family in those years. I wasted so much time."

Nowadays, Kouey is

embarrassed by his lean physique and scarred arms and insists that nobody will

employ him to sing on stage.

The shy man becomes more animated when

discussing what he'd like to do to his former captives.

"If the captain

and boat owner ever come to Cambodia, I will kidnap them and make them work in

the fields, so they can understand how hard I worked," he says with a rueful

grin. "... I will whip them like cows."

These bitter responses and

feelings of low self-esteem are common reactions to a traumatic event, says Dr

Sotheara Chhim, psychiatrist and managing director of the Transcultural

Psycho-social Organization, a community health NGO operating out of Phnom


"These men were like slaves, they didn't get any payment and some

were tortured severely. Many suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress

disorder and anxiety."

Sotheara's team in Phnom Penh provides debriefing

and encourages these men to talk about their problems in a supportive setting.

He teaches them coping mechanisms and some relaxation techniques. Unfortunately,

few people are aware that these services are available and free of


Kouey isn't, and he fears the long-term effects of his


"What I experienced might even be worse than what happened

during the Pol Pot regime," Kouey says softly, shaking his head.


mother, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, agrees.

"During the Pol

Pot years, even when there was no food, we could catch insects to eat, but out

at sea there's nothing ... to be so isolated at sea like that ..." says Sarun

Ma, her voice trailing off.

"No matter what happens, I will love him,"

Sarun says. "I'll always love my kids, no matter what they do."



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