PHUKET: Claims of rape and abduction being made by a group of Rohingya women and children have exposed for the first time a link between the human trafficking trade north of the holiday island of Phuket and local police.
A senior sergeant surrendered himself yesterday to face charges of abduction and conduct unbecoming, the first time a person in uniform has been linked to the people-smuggling trade that has grown and prospered along the scenic Andaman coast with the arrival of thousands of Rohingya boatpeople, under the noses of police and the military.
Phuketwan journalists who first exposed the inhumane ''pushbacks'' by the Thai military in 2009 also closely reported villagers' accusations in February that the Thai Navy was heavily involved in people-smuggling.
A reporter was with the Rohingya earlier this week when the group of women and children retraced their alleged ordeal.
Accused of abduction and human trafficking are Senior Sergeant Veerayut Ferngfull and Korlimula Ramahatu, 26, who is also accused of rape.
It's alleged that the senior sergeant was actively involved in attempting to extract money from the husbands of the three women by putting a chain around the neck of one of them. Another woman says she was raped three times, the first time at knifepoint.
Separate police teams from Kuraburi, a fishing port where many Rohingya boats have landed, and Khao Lak, the tourist hub of the Andaman coast north of Phuket, are investigating.
The senior sergeant denies the charges. Korlimula Ramahatu, who has been in a local jail serving a sentence for being in Thailand illegally, has yet to offer a plea.
The women and children were among a group of more than 70 who were taken to the family refuge centre in January as Thai authorities rounded up and detained more than 2000 Rohingya from boats at sea and trafficking camps along the border with Malaysia.
Like all the centres where women and children were being held, the one in Khao Lak was vulnerable to would-be traffickers because shelter staff, unable to speak the same language as the Rohingya, had great difficulty sorting genuine offers of help from those of would-be traffickers.
Korlimula appeared at the centre on May 19, said he was a Rohingya living in Thailand, and told staff he had come to help the women and children. He produced a Pattani province health card as proof of his identity.
Later, in words that the shelter's staff could not understand, he told the women: ''Anyone who has family or cousins in Malaysia, give the telephone numbers to me, I will help send you to Malaysia. If you do not get there soon, the Thai government will send you back to Burma (Myanmar).''
Most of the women gave him telephone numbers. He vanished and was not seen again until the night of May 26, when he met three women and allowed them to talk on a mobile telephone with their husbands in Malaysia.
The husbands told the three women they had paid for them to travel on, with one man saying he had paid the full sum of 50,000 baht and the other two saying they had put down deposits of 20,000 baht each.
The women jumped inside a black pickup outside the centre, along with two children, with a driver already at the wheel.
This was the man the women and children later identified as Senior Sergeant Veerayut. To emphasise his connections, Korlimula told them: ''We are working with the police.''
The group spent three nights at a hideout north of Khao Lak then moved to another place for one night, and a third hideout for two nights. On June 3-6, they stayed at Baan Dok Dang, near a house belonging to the policeman.
After darkness on June 5, the group was split up following calls to the husbands of the two women who had paid deposits. The calls failed to extract more money.
The women are aged 22 and 18. They say the policeman at one stage put a chain around the neck of the 22-year-old and beat her with a shoe.
With their husbands unable to pay more than the 20,000 baht deposit, the women were driven south to Surat Thani province in another vehicle by another man - so far unidentified but also suspected of being a police officer.
The third woman and her two young children were taken to a previous hideout for one night then transported by boat on June 9 to a remote house on Yeepon Island that they shared with Korlimula.
That night, after the woman rejected Korlimula's offer to ''marry'' her, she was allegedly raped at knifepoint in the room shared with her children.
The next night, he allegedly raped her again, telling her that if she slept with him, she and her children would be returned to the shelter.
On the third night, he insisted on ''one more night'' and allegedly raped her again.
The women and children were so distraught that Korlimula returned them to the mainland on June 12, and at 4am on June 13 the group was picked up by the policeman.
He dropped off Korlimula and went on to Phang Nga Police Station, where he told officers that he had arrested the family when he spotted them by a roadside and investigated.
The mother was charged with absconding, fined 1000 baht and with no money, stayed in a cell at Takuapa Police Station for five days as punishment. Her children were returned immediately to the shelter, where the other two women were also taken after also serving time for absconding.
After local police showed reluctance initially to investigate, both the Kuraburi and Khao Lak police are conducting inquiries with Korlimula and the senior sergeant charged with abduction by the Khao lak police.
Kuraburi police have charge Korlimula with rape and human trafficking and the senior sergeant with human trafficking and behavior unbecoming a police officer.
A white-haired man who was a regular visitor to the Khao Lak shelter has disappeared, and has since been spotted at another shelter for women and children in Hua Hin.
The Rohingya rape and abduction case is significant beyond the alleged crimes because it represents the first time a policeman or a military person has been formally charged in connection with human trafficking in Thailand.
The apprehension of more than 2000 Rohingya in Thailand in January demonstrated that thousands of people have been passing through Thailand to reach Malaysia. Along the Andaman coast, local traffickers are not difficult to find.
Former Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva promised an inquiry into the inhumane ''pushbacks'' by the Thai military in 2008-2009 along the Andaman coastline. Nothing happened.
In February, present Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promised an investigation into claims that the Royal Thai Navy was involved in people trafficking.
The claims came after a shooting incident at sea near a village close to Kuraburi, in the trafficking heartland north of Phuket. Nothing more has been heard of that promise.
Human Rights Watch this week called on the Thai government ''to swiftly and impartially investigate the rape case, and determine why traffickers were able to get access to Rohingya women in this shelter, and prosecute all those who aided the crime.''
A HRW spokesman added: ''Each year, tens of thousands of Rohingya set sail to flee persecution by the Burmese government and dire poverty.
''Their plight has worsened at the hands of traffickers and corrupt Thai officials. It is time for the United Nations and the international community to take action.''