The Face of Human Trafficking

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By Steve Galster.

Eleven weeks after the discovery of mass human graves along the Thai-Malaysian border, several factors driving success or failure in the ongoing fight against human slavery in Southeast Asia are becoming clear.  The first is ‘face’ – saving it with risk and bravery instead of safety and denial.  The second is data – how to convert it into power through proper analysis. And the third is the importance of good hearted, smart investigators from different walks of life – police, journalists, and NGOs – working closely together.

The latest special report from Reuters -– whose journalists won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize last year for their coverage of the plight of Rohingyas- – reveals more horrific details of the ongoing Rohingya trafficking scandal, as if straight out of an adventure thriller that puts you on the edge of your seat, wanting to crush the villain with your own hands.  A critical witness in the scandal – Mr. ‘X’, an impoverished Rohingya refugee living in Thailand– received a phone call one day from traffickers who were holding his nephew for ransom.  The traffickers found out that Mr. X was revealing details about their dirty business to Thai police. The traffickers put Mr. X’s nephew on the line to say goodbye, and then killed him. Message delivered. Life can be short.

The multi-billion dollar trafficking business strikes back at those who get in their way, while buying the loyalty and participation of government officers along the slave supply chain.  It is an incredibly powerful, frightening beast of darkness that most people, understandably, dare not confront.

But amidst the darkness, there is always light.  Light that shines brighter and stronger when courageous people team up.

Over the past six months, some brave people have worked extremely hard, risking their face, careers and lives to stop human trafficking, and have scored three significant successes.  These heroes –some who must remain nameless – deserve our praise and attention, but equally important, we need to learn from their experiences in order to scale the fight against slavery and abolish it once and for all. 

Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of Nakhon Si Thammarat Provincial Police is one of those heroes, as are the NGO investigators and journalists he and other Thai law enforcement officers worked with on the Rohingya case.  Anuchon admits that when he and his team were first approached by Mr X, asking for help for his ransomed nephew –and claiming there was a human trafficking syndicate operating slave camps near the Malaysian border–, he didn’t take him  seriously. The following month, Anuchon’s men stopped five trucks and discovered nearly 100 Rohingya stuffed inside, some already dead from suffocation, as they were being smuggled to camps.  The police realized that they not only had a valuable informant in Mr. X, they also had potentially critical data.  The drivers and a number of Rohingyas stuffed in the back of their trucks had mobile phones.  Those phones had data.  But the police needed help from data experts before they could extract it. 

Anuchon called Freeland because he and his men had worked with us on human trafficking cases before, and because they remembered that we had expertise in analyzing telephone sim cards. They also knew that using an initial informal channel of collaboration to a friendly NGO carried less risk than going straight to HQ.  Had they notified their superiors in Bangkok about the case and discovered there was no evidence of trafficking, they could have upset their bosses and risked serious shame. While the police did not say this, I think such communication to HQ too early on in the case could have also resulted in an operational leak.

Freeland officers were quietly dispatched to work with Anuchon’s staff for months, guiding them on how to extract data from the mobile phones, plotting it all onto a computer screen through analytical software that showed links between victims, traffickers, and bank accounts. Eventually, the police were able to pinpoint an important character on the link chart, who turned out to be the same person extorting Mr. X. (and allegedly killing his nephew). His name was Anwar.  Investigators could see from the data that though Anwar was a serious player, he was not the kingpin, as was originally reported by HQ and the press.  He was, however, an important link in the syndicate. 

With Anuchon’s field-based leadership, the data surrounding Anwar was eventually used to find more people involved in the syndicate, including corrupt police officers, civil authorities, a senior army official, more bank accounts, and mass graves. 

Police officers told us what they told Reuters: at first they were reluctant to report this and other human trafficking cases to their superiors for fear of being questioned if it was truly trafficking, and of making their country look bad. “We were afraid to lose face,” they said.  But they eventually decided to risk it and push on.  

The serious issue of ’face‘ in Thai culture, particularly – I think – among government officers, was something I did not fully comprehend until I had to help sponsor an ‘apology party’ for a Thai police officer years ago. We had organized an intense investigation training course for the Royal Thai Police Academy, which was well received, but one seemingly minor mistake was made during the opening ceremony when we accidentally listed one officer to speak before another. The review of the course by people who did not even stay beyond the ceremony: very bad opening ceremony, good training course.  The two people blamed for the mistake had to organize dinner, red wine and karaoke and apologize in front of a large audience. I remember laughing it off with sadness: Allies in the fight against trafficking obsessing over a typo in the ceremony program.

Not all Thai police are obsessed with ceremony. Some like action. Anuchon and his men relentlessly conducted inquiries between January and April, as did another police officer who dared to dig up the truth, Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot.  The work of these officers demonstrated that a brave face daring to be wrong and confront corruption is a good looking face. It is because these officers, along with Freeland investigators, risked digging into criminal phones and bank accounts, one of the biggest counter human trafficking operations ever was launched.  Over 70 corrupt Thai officers and politicians have been arrested to date.  Over US$3.5 million in dirty assets have been seized. And some dirty politicians, caught with their hands in the trafficking jar, are now hiring the country’s highest-powered lawyers to save their skin and face.

Recently, the Rohingya case has gone a bit quiet. Information sharing among government, NGO and media investigators has reduced. Political jockeying is going on, and the witnesses are precariously exposed. HQ has taken over and seems to want to control the headlines to save face. Maybe they are still going to do the right thing.  Investigative journalists now play an even more important role to make sure they do by keeping the story alive. Otherwise, more Rohingyas could be trafficked after the current monsoon season dies down, while another scandal diverts public attention.

Meanwhile, two more human trafficking cases have been rolled out by more daring investigators. ’Operation World Cup’ started when a Thai woman, ‘Jan’ (pseudonym) snuck in a text SOS message from Malaysia to a friend in Thailand, who in turn passed it on to an NGO, which shared it with trusted police and diplomats, resulting in an impressive bust this week. The villain in this case was a Malaysian male who preyed on economically desperate Thai and Vietnamese women by luring them to work for his business in Kuala Lumpur.  ‘Boss Steven’ used Facebook to advertise positions with his brothel, disguising it as just a restaurant and club. Plenty of women from Vietnam and Thailand fell for the ploy, some perhaps slightly suspicious, but all ending up losing their freedom. When Jan realized that she had been duped into selling her body against her will, she managed to get word out on a free chat channel. That message found its way to Freeland’s trafficking hotline, and after analyzing it, we forwarded the information to Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI).  Secret communication then ensued between authorities and Jan through social networking channels. (This all happened fairly recently; I’m withholding too many details to ensure anonymity for Jan and others).

With backup ensured, Jan snuck out of the brothel compound and quickly made her way to the Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. When one of her controllers phoned her to find out where she had gone, a well-intentioned Embassy officer picked up the phone and castigated the controller for harming Jan and running an illegal business.  DSI worried that the diplomat’s lashing may have tipped off the owners, so they quickly repatriated Jan to Thailand where Freeland and its partner, the NGO ‘Exodus Road’, sponsored immediate care for her. 

While DSI continued the investigation, Freeland and Exodus took good care of Jan, which was critical in ensuring her willingness to testify against Boss Steven. Too often, victims of human trafficking are forced to repeat their story over and over again to several interrogating officers, which can be a difficult and shameful experience. And sometimes the interrogator –I’m sorry to say – sells his services to the trafficker who takes back control of the victim. Moreover, the victims have often been expected to appear in a public court and testify against their former controllers, while the alleged controller is standing right there in front of them. I’ve seen so many victims either abandon the search for justice or, when feeling pressured by the trafficker, they end up perjuring themselves by changing their story to save their own lives and those of  their family.  I used to wonder how a victim of trafficking could possibly be re-trafficked, but now I understand clearly. 

But in this case, Jan was one of the lucky ones. She was handled properly because of the careful cooperation between Exodus, Freeland and Thai authorities.  She was not expected to stand up in court. Instead, a Freeland officer was authorized to lodge the complaint for her, using her testimony. DSI kept on the case, working undercover to independently corroborate all the critical details provided about Boss Steven’s illegal business, resulting in his arrest in Thailand just last weekend.  (Turns out he was also trading animals).

Another case under way, which I’ll tell you more about next time, relates to the trafficking of Cambodian children and handicapped people into Thailand, where they are essentially rented out to sell trinkets to, and to beg from, tourists. This trafficker scheme is ridiculously nasty.  Imagine a seven year-old girl or boy forced to work the back allies of a sex tourist destination until 5am every night, and if they don’t come home with a certain amount in sales, they get beaten. It appears that some children are being used to satisfy pedophiles too. Thanks to some very brave work by a small group of social workers and investigators, some of this nonsense is finally being addressed but we have a long way to go. We’ll seek your engagement with Freeland and our excellent partners to help reduce human slavery one or more steps at a time.

 The latest successes show that there is hope.  Besides cooperation among good-hearted government and NGO officers, the role of journalists and public tipsters (could be you) has proven to be critical to successful counter trafficking operations.  And the use of technology now means that once information is gathered, it can no longer hide from justice.

And the lesson about ‘Face’?  Saving face at all costs is like over-doing cosmetic surgery: it eventually becomes obvious and makes you look worse. Wear your heart on your face and dare to the do the right thing. Life is short.

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