A former senator this week decried the treatment of the 2 million or so migrant workers now in Thailand, most of whom have come from Burma. In a Bangkok Post article, Jon Ungphakorn offered up some instances of abuse in factories and on fishing boats to support his remark that “we don’t seem to see them as human beings.”
Well, here’s another instance.
A month ago, Ko Thet Lwin Oo was a healthy young man working in the fishing industry on southern Thailand’s western seaboard. He went there not to seek his fortune, but like most others, just to make ends meet by working hard for long hours. Yet even this modest goal proved too great. On Oct. 21 the 35-year-old reportedly died of injuries in the Ranong hospital.
The wounds were not caused by accident. Three days earlier, Thet Lwin Oo had gone to speak with a seafood wholesaler whose car had been damaged when neighborhood children threw rocks. He wanted to say that his five-year-old son had not been involved. But something went wrong. According to an eyewitness, the trader first punched him, then hit him with a piece of lumber on his leg and waist, and finally, on the head.
Thet Lwin Oo was hospitalized and his wife Ma Thanda Moe made a criminal complaint on the same day. But instead of investigating, the police began pressing her to take money and stay quiet. When her husband died, the pressure and money both increased. At first she refused, but after a couple of weeks she relented and accepted 100,000 baht (around US$3000).
Why did she change her mind? She explained over the phone.
“We are poor, that’s why. I don’t have enough money to be able to pursue this case strongly. That’s why I accepted it. I’m satisfied. Leave it be. I told them to make sure that it doesn’t happen again… They also accepted the blame. He just went too far by accident, they said. They respectfully apologized. I said to promise that it wouldn’t happen again. I made him promise in front of the investigating officer. They said, ‘Yes, fine. No more Burmese will be beaten up like this.’ They said like that. So for that reason I settled it and signed some documents.”
As Thanda Moe didn’t have a lawyer or anyone else to assist her, it’s not clear exactly what she signed. But because killing is a criminal offence, payment of money is immaterial. Once notified, the police are obliged to investigate and lodge a file with the public prosecutor.
In the past, there were few chances of successful criminal suits against citizens of Thailand for offences committed on migrant workers. In the 1990s, stories of killings along the border were commonplace. And near Mae Sot in 2002 at least 21 were murdered in one place; the killers were never found.
But thanks to the perseverance of some lawyers, labor groups and others, in recent years, perpetrators who once would have been untouchable have been sent to prison. A powerful businessman — the son of a former parliamentarian — was in January 2007 sentenced to 20 years in jail for the rape of two migrant workers, although a police officer charged with procuring the women has apparently escaped punishment. In March, an air force officer was given a life sentence for brutally murdering his Burmese housekeeper; his wife was told to serve five years on lesser charges.
Each of those cases was successful because women’s rights defenders, journalists and advocates together obliged the police to investigate and saw that the prosecutor lodged charges. In neither was it easy; the latter took almost five years. But once each was in court, the judges were sensitive to the details, taking early testimony from other guest workers in order to allow them to return to Burma rather than await scheduled hearings. They also were not swayed by the influential backgrounds of the accused, as opposed to those of the victims.
Unfortunately, after Thet Lwin Oo was attacked no one was there to help out, and his wife didn’t know where to turn. Although rationalizing the decision to take the money, she acknowledged that, “If this sort of thing had happened in Burma, I definitely wouldn’t have settled the case. I would have kept it going… But we’re in another country so instead we’ll just have to leave.” Her brother-in-law though was less conciliatory, complaining that the police had treated the case as if “a chicken or pig had been killed.”
In some respects, the story of Thet Lwin Oo is the story of migrant workers all over Thailand. As Thanda Moe says, being in someone else’s country and outside of one’s own social setting makes the pursuit of justice much more difficult. Problems of language and unfamiliarity with officialdom are just the beginning. The lack of supportive family and friends makes victims feel even more isolated and uncertain of where they stand. Racism and other prejudices, often created and fed by state agencies and the media, only make matters worse.
But the story of Thet Lwin Oo is also the story of millions of other poor people in Thailand; people with citizenship but in practice, few rights. Young men and women from the rural northeast who themselves go abroad to work take with them stories of brothers set up and killed in police drug stings; cousins assaulted in custody, aunties pushed into taking money rather than pursuing cases against the killers of husbands.
Whether or not police can be accused of direct or indirect involvement in specific cases, their established links with organized crime and systemic failures to investigate such incidents make them complicit.
The defects of the criminal justice system in Thailand, and especially of policing, are felt strongly not only by migrants but also by millions of ordinary citizens. Although the former have peculiar difficulties in getting redress when wronged, overcoming some of the obstacles to relief for the latter would benefit guest workers too.
Ma Thanda Moe has cremated her husband and taken her son back to Burma. Meanwhile, despite having learned about the killing too late, the Asian Human Rights Commission is trying to get more of the particulars in order that a proper criminal inquiry might be opened. Anyone in Thailand with information on this incident or similar cases can send details in English, Thai or Burmese to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See also: Rule of law versus rule of lords in Thailand, article 2, vol. 4, no. 2, April 2005