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Ismail's back, with candle burns and cuts displayed, on Phuket last night

Hidden Agony of 21st Century Slave Trade

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
PHUKET: Ismail has been bought as a slave, the way hundreds of Rohingya are bought in Thailand, a country that is supposed to be free of slavery.

His body still bears the unhealed wounds of a horrendous beating. He says he was handcuffed, forced to lie face down and thrashed without mercy.

Held captive by modern flesh traders in a strange country, he did what uppity slaves always have done - he tried to escape.

This is Thailand, 2013. Ismail's broken body is a shocking indictment of a nation not yet free of corruption and the nightmare that is 21st century slavery.

Ismail's fortune improved a little when he was bought this month for 40,000 baht by a Phuket community group. These good people wanted to save just one slave among the hundreds, possibly even thousands, still being abused in Thailand.

The recent catalogue of raids on Thai-Malaysia transit border camps where Rohingya men, women and children are being traded for cash shows the despicable underbelly of modern Thailand.

Until recently, the flesh trade has been allowed to flourish, with local politicians running the camps and officials getting their corrupt cut.

Raids in the past few days have ''rescued'' hundreds of Rohingya but, as Ismail revealed to Phuketwan last night, other horror camps remain untouched.

The 47-year-old Rohingya, stateless like 800,000 others in Burma, left a wife and seven children near Sittwe, a large town in hate-ridden Rakhine state, on November 14.

He paid 200,000 kyat to a people smuggler to take his chances among 61 passengers who included four women and six children. They boarded an old open boat to sail to a brighter future, somewhere, anywhere.

The boats of people smugglers puttered out to meet them off the coast of Ranong, the port on the border between Thailand and Burma.

Transferred into a convoy of minivans, Ismail and his fellow travellers sped south, past the international holiday island of Phuket, to a captives' camp at Su Ngai Kolok in the province of Narathiwat.

There, his torment began. Over about 40 days and nights, Ismail learned the reality of Thailand's modern slavery.

Ordered to raise fresh cash to earn his freedom, Ismail failed to contact the one person he thought could help, his sister-in-law in Malaysia.

The number rang, and rang. There was never an answer. Each day in the camp brought fresh agony.

He and hundreds of others, he says, were each fed just two spoonfulls of rice a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.

When he could bear it no longer, he fled into the surrounding jungle. He did not get far.

Brought back by armed guards, he was stripped, handcuffed, and held on the ground. He was then flogged with a cane.

''I did not see who did the beating,'' Ismail said. ''But it was very painful. They flogged the heels and soles of my feet as well.''

Just to make sure Ismail did not forget, his tormentors burned his back with a candle flame and stabbed him in the leg with a sharpened construction rod.

Captive Rohingya children looked on and heard his screams. When the beating ended, there was no medical treatment, nothing for the gaping wounds, he said.

On January 5 when Ismail arrived on a bus to greet the Phuket group who had saved him by raising 40,000 baht and paying it to his captors, he was still barely able to shuffle.

When he stripped to show his back and legs to the group, some of them shed tears. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Thailand in 2013.

Other captive slaves had been killed by floggings or shot dead trying to escape, he said. Burmese, Thais and Rohingya too were among the traffickers.

Many of those who cannot raise cash for a passage to Malaysia are sold off to slavery on fishing boats.

The pain and suffering of being a stateless Rohingya must at times seem never-ending.

In the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Burmese government since June, Ismail's village was not torched the way that so many others have been, he said.

The Buddhists who were once the neighbors of the Rohingya were removed, leaving the unwelcome Muslims in isolation. With nine mouths to feed, Ismail said it quickly became apparent that life was going to be made unbearable.

The two kilos of rice he needed each day to feed his family could no longer be purchased because Army patrols always took most of his catch of fish.

With a heavy heart, he boarded a boat and farewelled his children, five boys and two girls, the youngest aged three.

In a country where Rohingya remain persecuted and oppressed, the future of Ismail's family remains as uncertain as his own. On Phuket now, kept hidden from authorities, he has a chance.

Additional reporting: Alan Morison and Sophie Brown

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Thank you PW for keeping us informed of this dispicable pratice of modern slavery. By raising the story, showing pictures and real facts, prehaps in the future, the perpertrators of such a crime against humans, maybe sentanced and punnished.
Keep the presure up PW.

Posted by Robin on January 16, 2013 07:02

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Thank you for raising awareness regarding the Rohingya; it would be interesting to know what community group "bought" him. Surely, there has to be some way to get involved and help?

Posted by Anonymous on January 16, 2013 08:13

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This is good journalism. Thanks..

Posted by Jake on January 16, 2013 11:42

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Excellent Report PW!!

Posted by ratatoee on January 16, 2013 11:49

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Please everyone, send this story to every news website/agency you know.

Posted by Lena on January 16, 2013 17:18

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Good reporting. This is shocking human treatment. Well done to the Community group for there actions. Where is the action from the Prime Minister? These slave traders deserve life which is to light a sentance. Please keep us updated on this issue.

Posted by chaseable on January 16, 2013 18:15

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When a large part of the population treats citizens of neighboring countries with contempt, this kind of behavior finds fertile soil to flourish.

Ask what your average Thai thinks of Burmese, Cambodian or Laotians and you will understand why.

Land of Smiles ? Only in the glossy travel brochures. A sharade.

Reports like this can save lives and change the world. Thank you PW.

Posted by Andrew on January 16, 2013 18:16

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Wasn't there talk recently that the U.N was going to impose sanctions against Thailand until they took positive action to stamp out this heinous act?

The slave trade, like anything else in Thailand is all about the money and corruption and everyone can make a difference, simply by boycotting countries such as Thailand that condone and support these activities.

@Lena - I'll ask the Editor of Meebal.com if they would write an article on this - maybe Ed would allow the use of their images?

Posted by Graham on January 16, 2013 19:37

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well i'm stunned to speechlessness here.

Posted by michael on January 17, 2013 17:51

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Wonderful work of journalism, Chutima and Alan. I don't know if you know that several Bangladeshi newspapers have virtually reprinted this story this week.

Posted by Shaikh Azizur Rahman on January 20, 2013 02:42

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I am going to share this story in the hopes that you all keep up this world changing work... and that the international media keep watch on your excellent reports!

Posted by Tiffany on January 21, 2013 15:45

Editor Comment:

The BBC has a report today worth watching/reading, Tiffany. Let's hope there are more to come. At least there's now an understanding that this is not just about the 850 ''rescued'' from the transit camps but the thousands being trafficked and the ethnic cleansing driving them from Burma. The exodus is growing, and that probably pleases the Burmese government if not its inactive Asean neighbors. From what we hear, conditions inside Burma are worse now than at any time since June. One day the Thai media will react.


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