Fleeing Rohingya Women Fall Prey to Traffickers in Thailand

By Reuters 18 July 2013

PHANG NGA — The men managed to gain access to the detained women and promised Narunisa she would be reunited with her husband, who had left for Malaysia seven years ago when their second daughter was just a year old.

So the stateless Rohingya Muslim from Burma sneaked out of a government-run shelter in southern Thailand where she has been held since January.

Instead of taking Narunisa to Malaysia, the traffickers smuggled her, her two daughters and two other Rohingya women in and out of numerous hideouts where they were kept against their will. One of the men raped Narunisa repeatedly.

She now wants the traffickers, including a Thai policeman, to be punished, but the slow, creaky wheels of Thai justice are proving a challenge.

The incident also raises concerns over the safety and vulnerability of detained Rohingya women in Thailand and shines an unflattering light on Thai police — at some officials’ possible complicity in the trafficking of Rohingya and in harming rather than helping victims.

Narunisa is one of 62 women and children at the shelter in Phang Nga, near Thailand’s popular beach resorts. The 25-year-old fled Arakan State in western Burma when it became impossible to make a living after two bouts of sectarian violence last year left scores dead and some 140,000 displaced, most of them Muslims.

Although the Rohingya have been in Arakan for centuries, Burma has excluded them from the country’s 135 recognized ethnic groups and denied them citizenship, rendering them stateless. Rights groups say they face some of the worst discrimination in the world, which worsened after the riots.

Narunisa’s village, unlike many others, was not destroyed in the violence, but her source of income quickly vanished when she could no longer go to the main market in Arakan’s capital Sittwe to sell fruits and vegetables she had grown. Sittwe is now, except in one cordoned off area, devoid of Muslims.

Raped At Knifepoint

Three days after arriving on Thailand’s shores in a wooden boat, Narunisa was detained and sent to the shelter in Phang Nga. Soon after, traffickers gained access.

“The guys came once first and looked from the outside. They came again and got permission from the shelter people, and we started talking,” Narunisa said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation at the shelter. She gave one of the traffickers, a Rohingya, her husband’s phone number in Malaysia.

“He called him and said, ‘I’ll bring your wife and kids to you, send me money’.”

She persuaded two other women to escape from the shelter with her on May 27. Two men were in a pick-up truck waiting for them – 26-year-old Rohingya Korlimula and a Thai man, who Narunisa later learned was Senior Sergeant Veerayut Ferngfull.

They were taken to different hideouts. The traffickers asked for 50,000 baht (about $1,600) from each woman for the journey. Narunisa’s husband, who now has a second wife, paid the full amount for his wife and daughters but the other two could not afford to pay in full.

After 12 days, the two other women were taken elsewhere – Narunisa did not know it yet, but they had been released after failing to pay more money and brought by police back to the shelter – while she and her 8- and 10-year-old daughters were brought to a house on an island.

That night, after her children had fallen asleep, Korlimula said he wanted to marry her. When she refused, he raped her repeatedly at knifepoint for the next three nights.

“I told him, ‘You know I’m married and my husband is in Malaysia. You call him “brother”. Why are you doing this?’” she recalled in tears.

On June 13, Narunisa and her children were dumped on the side of the road in Phang Nga province’s Kuraburi district.

After police found her, she was charged with absconding from the shelter and was kept in a police station. Her daughters were sent back to the shelter.

Death Threats

On June 18, Narunisa was released and went to the Khao Lak district police station to press charges. Thomson Reuters Foundation was present and saw firsthand the problems faced by rape victims seeking justice in Thailand.

The petite woman, dressed in a brown headscarf, a green top and a printed pink sarong, recounted her experience while waiting patiently to get the attention of the policemen, who for at least 15 minutes argued among themselves whether Khao Lak was the right jurisdiction to investigate the crime.

They then questioned her in detail – a process that required four languages – and were flippant when she was unable to recall some details.

The police continued to voice concerns over jurisdiction problems. At one point they asked for the exact address of where she was raped, despite repeated explanations that she is unfamiliar with Thailand. They finally started taking notes, nearly an hour after the victim had stepped inside the station.

“He told me he was going to take me to my husband and then raped me. This shouldn’t happen. He should be punished,” Narunisa said, remaining her composure.

She only burst into tears later, as her daughters ran out to greet her when she was taken back to the shelter.

Her ordeal is not over yet. A day after filing her complaint, a Thai man reportedly turned up at the shelter and threatened Narunisa and the shelter director, saying he had killed several Rohingya already and killing more “would be no problem”, according to Human Rights Watch.

The threat was reported to the authorities, but no police protection has yet been assigned to the shelter at the time of writing. The shelter director has purchased a gun and set up surveillance cameras.

Korlimula and Veerayut the policeman have since been charged but they remain free. Veerayut is believed to be the first Thai official to be charged with trafficking of Rohingya.

Both deny the charges. Korlimula claims he and Narunisa were in love. Meanwhile, Chalit Kaewyarat, Phang Nga provincial police commander, told Thomson Reuters Foundation “an internal investigation shows it was unlikely (the policeman) was involved in human trafficking.”