K OH KONG - A ring of human traffickers that deceived or drugged Cambodian boys and
young men to force them to work in slave-like conditions in Thailand has been uncovered
by human rights workers.
Minister of Interior Sar Kheng told the Post he had ordered the smashing of the trafficking
ring - which has reportedly preyed on thousands of adolescents around the country
- but rights workers said no arrests have been made.
By Dec 17, 46 victims - at least 15 of whom were freed from traffickers' hideouts
in and around Koh Kong town - had arrived by boat in Sihanoukville town after what
one rights official described as a close call with the Koh Kong provincial authorities.
"I am happy we got out. We were told that an order was given to stop the boat
from leaving," said a human rights worker, adding that the order must have arrived
after the boat had left port.
Rights workers later moved those they had liberated back to Phnom Penh, where they
will be debriefed and sent to their home provinces.
Many of those rescued had been held in the traffickers' hideouts in the center of
Koh Kong town or on the neighboring island of Ba Kla, but security was lax as the
traffickers apparently relied on sedatives - putting them into their food - to keep
the boys pacified, rights workers said.
Another added that many of those who were freed appeared sluggish and extremely disoriented.
"One man has difficulty walking. He looks like he is half-asleep. They are all
tired. They have no possessions and are very hungry," the rights worker said.
For at least two years, hundreds of boys have been sent each month to work in dreadful
conditions that amount to virtual slavery in Thailand's Trat province, according
to rights workers.
"The scope of the trafficking is absolutely amazing. Between 300-500 or more
are trafficked each month, if not more. Not all of them are being deceived and drugged,
but many are," one said.
The majority of the boys appear to have come from Kampong Cham province, while a
few come from Siem Reap and other areas. A number of the children are ethnic Chams.
Eight victims were discovered in a raid on a house next to the Koh Kong central market
where a Kampot policeman said he found his godson the previous week.
The policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the house was owned by a
high-ranking police official in Koh Kong. He was one of nearly a half dozen sources
who alleged that the trade in boys is either actively encouraged or ignored by provincial
police at the highest levels.
"Why haven't local authorities taken action? We saw police [who were involved].
Were they real police?" the Kampot policeman asked.
He said his godson was enticed to leave for Koh Kong last June after a man promised
him good money across the border. But the boy was drugged against his will upon his
arrival and was about to be sent to Thailand when he was rescued, his godfather said.
"When we arrived, [the boy] was sleeping on a table in the fetal position. He
was unconscious and did not recognize his father. After a while, he started waking
up. He said that he came of his own free will....After he woke up completely, he
started crying and said he had been lied to."
The policeman, who said he searched through several hideouts before finding the boy,
counted about 100 boys in capitivity. "We saw teenagers, sometimes locked in
the houses, sometimes sitting outside. I noticed that they had a distant, far-away
look... many of them were drooling."
Later, he led local police and rights investigators to the sites for the mass rescue.
"Not all the boys were locked in the houses, [because they] were drugged. They
couldn't last very long without falling asleep and they had nowhere to go."
He said drugs were also used on the Thai side of the border, but with the opposite
motive in mind.
Traffickers told him the boys were given a drug called Yama - apparently an amphetamine-
once they arrived in Thailand so they could labor day and night without tiring.
But Yama wears the boys down until they are so emaciated and disoriented that they
are no longer useful to their employers, the policeman said.
In the best of cases, the bosses turn the boys over to police who arrest them as
illegal immigrants, according to local sources and immigration experts. The police
then relieve the illegal workers of their meager salaries and return them to Cambodia
Less fortunate workers, who are sent to work on fishing boats, may face a grimmer
fate at sea. The Kampot policeman said many of them are reportedly killed and discarded
once they have served their purpose.
"When the boys get all [used up]... they push them into the sea to drown,"
A man who worked as a Funcinpec commune chief until he was relieved of his duties
in the wake of the July coup said he learned how the trafficking ring works after
helping several parents find their lost children.
"The recruiter says he needs 20 or 30 workers. They will work and live on a
fishing boat and make good money. But it is lies, all lies. Once they cross the Gulf
of Thailand, some boys are put on other boats, sometimes destined for Malaysia or
somewhere else. No one comes back. I don't know what they do with them," he
He also confirmed police involvement and the doping of victims before they are shipped
out of the country.
"As soon as the boys' minds become clear again, they are given more drugs. They
don't try to escape, they are not handcuffed. They don't eat," he said.
The former commune chief added that he had heard 50 boys had been smuggled into Thailand
the previous night.
"If the boys are muscular, they are the most desirable. In Thailand, traders
are given about 3,000 baht [$70] for each one. It is sad because people make a lot
Such tales of trafficking are no surprise to Florian Forster, a development officer
at the International Organization of Migration. He said Koh Kong is a well-known
hot spot for human traffickers.
"We have often heard rumors that construction workers and fisherman are given
drugs to work harder," he said, explaining that he was not surprised as the
labor situation in Thailand for illegal Cambodians is "close to slavery".
Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, contacted Dec 17 by telephone, said he had taken
action to stop such trafficking. "I am not only aware of it, I have asked the
authorities to take action, to crackdown."
But indications are that provincial police, many of whom are alleged to be involved
in the ring, are not taking serious measures to capture the ring leaders.
One rights investigator noted that the two-day operation to free the boys was hindered
by poor communication with high-ranking provincial police officials who were conspicuously
hard to reach.
Another sign of foul play is that a shipment of boys was allegedly moved up a few
days as rights workers began planning their trip to Koh Kong.
A Dec 16 visit to one of the traffickers' hideouts showed that the beach-front huts
had been freshly dismantled. Only stakes, scattered shoes and food wrappings remained
on the trampled brown grass.
A monk at a nearby pagoda said the traffickers had vacated the site on the night
of Dec 13. The boys were put onto boats moored behind the house and shipped to Thailand.
At least 60 boys are trafficked out of the area around the pagoda every two weeks,
the monk said.
He said that a small percentage of the boys return, looking unhealthy and frail.
"[Most of them] are only taken one way - toward the border."
Visibly frightened, the monk spoke on condition that neither he nor the pagoda he
lives in be named for fear of recriminations.
"The people behind this have power. There have been complaints and [local] police
came to investigate, but they have done nothing," he said. "All the monks
in the pagoda can tell you it is true."
Every local in town interviewed about the trafficking of laborers said they knew
about it, causing rights workers to blast provincial police for not dismantling the
network or making any arrests.
Despite the problems with the bust, rights workers commended four provincial policemen
who they said had the courage to work with them despite apparent pressures not to.
"What is going on in Koh Kong is truly outrageous. This is truly a conspiracy
of silence," one human rights worker said. "We hope there will be a strong
response from the government and that these very serious human rights violations
will be stopped."