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Thailand fishing: Desperate life at sea

Patrick WinnGlobalPost.com

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand and PREY VENG, Cambodia — To hear Jord tell it, a deep-sea boatman’s life is one long knife fight. His nastiest scar starts above his eyes. It runs straight to his crown in a pink groove, the outcome of a man’s attempt to split his skull like a melon.

Other limbs of the 40-year-old Thai boat mechanic haven’t fared much better. A quarter-sized chunk of shin meat was sheared from his right leg. His back is pitted with hack marks. But a snarling boar, tattooed in jagged lines into his bicep, suggests that his enemies got the worst of it.

Jord tapped its inky snout and read aloud the lettering underneath. “I always win,” said the squat, sun-leathered fisherman in a high rasp.

Deep-sea Thai fishing trawlers offer a study of rough men in the absence of law. “You have a problem with someone, you take them down on the spot,” said Jord, whiling away a Friday afternoon in a port city flophouse with his crew mates. “You make sure he can’t come for you later.”

The gang’s five days of shore leave — a blur of booze and karaoke girls — would take place in Samut Sakhon, the Thai fishing trade’s industrial hub. They had planted themselves in the city’s skid row, a rubbly lane behind an abandoned cinema. Even on shore, they stuck close to their fraternal crew. These clans, like prison gangs, offer a measure of protection against rivals.

Along nearby railroad tracks, children fetch booze, cigarettes and ice buckets for men with bloodshot eyes. Rouge-caked girls in neon skirts slink in and out of back rooms. Sex here sells for $8.50. A bottle of Blend 285 whiskey, the rotgut of choice, sells for $5. And laborers from Cambodia or Myanmar, whom the likes of Jord lord over, go for about $600 a head.

That is the price paid to smugglers, who guide droves of desperate men from Thailand’s neighboring countries to padlocked rooms by the shore. Far too often, the laborers themselves receive nothing.

Once purchased by a Thai fishing syndicate, captains can choose to pay them fairly, enslave them for years or, if they please, dispose of them later like worn-out chattel.

“Years ago, I saw an entire foreign crew shot dead,” said Da, a 38-year-old Thai crewman who has worked the seas since 18. “There were 14 of them. They’d been out to sea for five years straight without compensation. The boss didn’t want to pay up, so he lined them up on the side of the boat and shot them one by one.”

Twelve bodies dropped into the sea, Da said; two slumped forward, and bled out on the deck. “I was ordered to dump them into the water,” he said, “and clean up the mess.”

On land, Thai long-haul fishermen tend to occupy society’s lower rungs. “A lot of guys run to the sea to escape the law,” Jord said. But on the open sea, these misfits occupy the higher caste. Their inferiors, trafficked migrants, are compelled to make themselves useful or else.

Murder is obscenely common. Of the seven ex-slaves interviewed by GlobalPost in Thailand and Cambodia, four had witnessed a killing aboard a Thai trawler. So did nearly 60 percent of a 49-man set of rescued captives profiled by a UN anti-trafficking team in 2009.

“I once saw a captain grab a metal spike used to mend nets and stab a fisherman in the chest,” said Moeun Pich, 32, a former sea slave from Cambodia’s central Kampong Thom province. “The crew pulled a sleeping bag over his corpse and rolled it overboard.”

While held captive aboard Thai-run fishing boats, 32-year-old Cambodian Moeun Pich was worked 20 hours per day for zero pay. He witnessed the murder of a fellow fisherman whose corpse was dumped into the sea. (Patrick Winn/Global Post)

Pich was nearly a casualty himself. Just one month into his captivity, the captain and crew boss grew exasperated at his poor fishing know-how.

“One pointed a gun to my head. The other bashed my head with a club,” he said. “When I held up my hands to block the blows, the club shattered my wrist.”

For the next six weeks, Pich sorted fish with his one good hand.

There is a code of honor, according to veteran Thai crewmen, that obliges Thais to shelter fellow Thais who fall into the hands of an abusive captain. It does not extend to the trafficked underclass.

“So they thought they were going to work in a factory or construction yard and now they’re on a boat,” Jord said. “So what?”

The push factors

In the 1980s, Thailand’s deep-sea fishing trade easily filled its needs with job-seeking Thais. But a reduction in national poverty through the 1990s and 2000s helped offer better options than life spent on a filthy trawler far from home.

The labor shortage now plagues Thailand’s deep-sea fishing industry, with up to 70,000 unfilled jobs, according to the Bangkok-based Mirror Foundation, which studies human trafficking.

Financial pressures compel captains to find free labor. Fuel accounts for 40 to 60 percent of a boat’s costs, according to Thailand’s Department of Fisheries, and global price hikes have gnawed at captains’ margins.

Overfishing in Thai waters and beyond has forced crews to work longer and harder for a smaller haul of high-value catch: bream, mackerel, squid, scad, anchovies and more.

“You’re in constant need of workers,” said Ad, a deputy trawler captain with the muscular frame of a Muay Thai fighter. “Just show up to the pier looking for a job and we’ll drag you aboard.”

According to Mirror Foundation investigations, labor demand has fishing syndicates resorting to abduction: press-ganging men at gunpoint, spiking their drinks in karaoke dives or, in one case, subduing two teenage brothers with chloroform rags at urinals at Bangkok’s bustling Mor Chit bus station.

But the preferred method relies on foreign coyotes. Thailand is flanked by Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia, among Asia’s poorest countries. Many villages across the border are so stark that hope of securing one of Thailand’s toughest jobs — in farming or construction — can compel men to believe a broker’s lies.

“In my village, I was making $1.50 per day as a day laborer. They said I’d make $260 per month in a Thai factory,” said Sokha, a 39-year-old former fishing slave from Cambodia's Prey Veng province. “My wife had just given birth to a baby with a heart condition. How could I refuse?”

A broker told Kim Net, an 26-year-old Cambodian trafficked from Kampot province, that he could tend Thai gardens for $195 a month. “I started thinking about all the chickens I could buy with that money,” he said. “The broker lived in my village. I trusted him.”

Another former sea slave, from Myanmar’s hilly Karen state, home to the world’s longest-running civil war, said his journey began with an older female broker’s promise of factory work.

“My brother and I paid her $290 to smuggle us over,” said the 22-year-old, who calls himself Sanh. “We walked through the jungle for one week, hiking at night and working in villages by day to get food. We eventually reached a pick-up truck waiting for us on the other side.”

Crooked brokers either demand cash for job placement up front or offer a “work now, pay later” arrangement. The end result is the same: indentured servitude. After being sold, a slave’s debt is transferred to a captain, who is free to demand an outrageous freedom price that a captive can never pay off.

“On police raids, we’ve found notebooks filled with victims’ names, the amount paid for each guy and how much he owes,” said Punnaphot Khamenketkarn, a caseworker under Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

“They even keep lists of who escaped and who’s been captured,” he said. “If you escape and you’re caught, your debt doubles. Do it again and it triples. It’s a losing game. Even if you never try to escape, you can never really pay off your debt.”

Almost every ex-slave interviewed by GlobalPost first realized they’d been duped once traffickers locked them in a Thailand safe house filled with fellow captives. This is where men wait to be sold like livestock. The rooms, they said, are padlocked from the outside and guarded at all hours.

“There were three guards with knives. Two guys and a girl,” Net said. “They’d always smoke yama [methamphetamine] through a bottle.”

The prisoners’ hopelessness was compounded, he said, when three men in police uniforms visited the room with guns on their hips.

It was not a rescue mission.

The cops, who appeared familiar with the guards, pointed at the captives and barked commands at the broker, a Thai speaker. “I didn’t understand a word,” Net said, “but the broker said he’d be in huge trouble if even one of us got loose.”

Men were led out in twos and threes until the room was nearly empty. After nearly one month, Net too was marched outside and sold for $650 to a boat captain who drove him to a docked trawler. He would not come ashore until late 2011, a full 16 months later.

Life at sea

Escaped slaves describe a brutal rhythm aboard Thai trawlers. A typical work day amounts to 18-20 hours of manning nets and sorting catch. Sleep comes only after the last fish is sorted and the nets, prone to ripping, are stitched up.

The vessels, typically about 50 feet long, provide little cover from the blistering sun. When they're permitted to sleep, fishermen often lay their heads on wooden decks that shudder above a deafening motor. "You never really get used to the vibrations," Sokha said. A meal can consist of rice porridge flecked with bits of meat.

The fatigue snuffs out thought, Sanh said. Malnutrition and dehydration turn men into zombies. “You always want to lay down. When you finally do, there isn’t a single thought in your head,” he said. “You’re instantly sleeping.”

Sokha served a captain who boasted of exploits with the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that overran Cambodia in 1975 and terrorized the countryside through the 1980s. The captain claimed he’d since fled to Thailand, married and melted into Thai society.

“He made sure we saw his guns,” Sokha said. One was an AK-47. The other was a vintage K-54 pistol. “He told us, ‘Don’t ever test me. I’ve been cruel in my life and I’ll be cruel some more.’”

Slaving under the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla had one perk: the Cambodian captives shared a common language. This is the exception. Miscommunication is the norm between Thai captains and their captives from Myanmar or Cambodia. Failure to understand a command can provoke beating, maiming or worse.

“One guy misunderstood an order and got clubbed with an iron bar,” Net said. “His arm snapped. There was blood everywhere. He just went back to sorting fish. It was either keep working or get shot.”

The years grind away at young lives. Aside from the occasional port call, Pich, now 32, did not step on land for a full six years. His seafaring chops actually increased his market value as various captains sold and resold him onto several different boats.

“Once a captain is tired of a guy, he’s sold to another captain for profit,” said Ad, the deputy boat captain. “A guy can be out there for 10 years just getting sold over and over.”

Tales of escape

Pich eventually escaped into Malaysia’s Sarawak jungles. His captain trusted him to fetch instant noodles at a portside market. He ran for his life.

After two years of labor on construction sites and rubber plantations — where he was stiffed again — Pich met a sympathetic Cambodian with connections to a Western charity. The group paid for his flight home.

Sokha, with his son and nephews, fled when their owner briefly departed the ship to rendezvous with other captains. The timing was opportune: for the first time in months, their trawler was anchored within sight of land.

They swam to nearby Koh Kut, a Thai island near Cambodia, and sought refuge with a Cambodian fisherman. After putting Sokha and the boys to work on coastal fishing boats for a month, the man coughed up $130. It was enough to get them home.

The fate of slaves who flee ashore — penniless and in rags — often relies on chance encounters with altruistic strangers. The neglected end up like Sanh. His escape was followed by weeks wandering Thailand’s coast like a hungry wraith.

Sanh has since added flesh on his slight frame. He spikes his black hair into hedgehog tufts and, following a custom common in Myanmar, paints tree bark paste on his cheeks each morning in sharp rectangles. When anxious, he nibbles at a string tied around his wrist.

In 2010, after six months of captivity, Sanh and two others from Myanmar stripped down, stuffed their clothes into plastic bags and jumped off the trawler. “There was a guy on board who’d been there for three years,” he said. “I didn’t want to end up like him.”

That night, Sanh’s captain made two mistakes: dropping anchor near an island and drinking himself into a stupor. By the time he awoke, Sanh and the escapees were crouching in the island’s hilltops. “We saw the boat hunting for us,” he said, “but they eventually gave up.”

The shoreline was barely visible in the beyond. From their vantage point, the escapees could see two more islands jutting up from the sea between the coast. That night, Sanh said, they swam for the next outcropping and went back into hiding. The next night, they pushed to the final island.

Hunger and dehydration emptied their minds of almost all thought. “We barely spoke,” Sanh said. “All I said to myself was, ‘Keep swimming. Stop and you’re dead.’ I didn’t think of my friends or family. I would just imagine the Buddha.”

On the third day, Sanh and one of his companions washed ashore. The other did not. “I never saw him drown,” he said. “He was just gone.” They stumbled along the beach, he said, to Baan Phe, a port of departure to the Thai party island of Ko Samet.

A topographical view of Thailand's coast shows a formation of three islands off Baan Phe that match Sanh's description. Maps suggest that the final leg of his journey, from island to shore, was a two-mile slog aided by tidal currents.

Once Sanh came ashore, he spent the next 15 days surviving like a stray dog. He sucked water from outdoor spigots. He stole fruit and snacks from “spirit houses,” ornate offering platforms Thais erect to appease neighborhood ghosts.

More than once, Sanh said, he begged police officers to arrest him on the street. The broke, bedraggled foreigner was deemed unworthy of their time. “They looked me over,” he said, “and refused.”

Sanh eventually parted company with the other escapee, plonked down inside a police station and refused to budge. He was processed by immigration authorities and, later, placed in a Bangkok-area government shelter where he remains today.

“He was bony and bearded when he got him,” said Punnaphot, his caseworker. “He’s lucky that he wasn’t just deported back to Myanmar.”

In a perverse twist, Sanh agrees. Despite suffering slavery and starvation, he does not wish to return to his bleak birthplace. It is a testament to the desperation beyond the border, where men too often place faith in traffickers who sell them like mules.

“Go home? For what? I came to make money. That was the whole point,” Sanh said. “I just want to get my pink card [a Thai certification for migrants] and a steady job. On land.”

With additional reporting by Parinee Chantaharn.