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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Victims rescued as Thai slave labor ring exposed

Victims rescued as Thai slave labor ring exposed

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

penniless.

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,"

he said.

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

said.

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

of money."

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."

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