Poipet the Scene of Bustling Illicit Trade and Trafficking

Poipet – Consumer goods-bootlegged and legitimate-and foreign gamblers stream steadily across the border from Aranyapathet, Thailand, to this remote border post that has come to revolve around its seven foreign owned casinos. Not much goes the other way.

Save for the occasional load of rice and vendors who cross the border daily to sell their goods in the markets on the Thai side, most of the traffic is coming from the other direction.But increasingly, Poipet has become a hub for illicit border crossings and trafficking rings that fill brothels and begging gangs abroad. And often, the trafficked person does not find out the real reason they have been brought abroad until they get there.

So it was for Kong Kunthea.

Kong Kunthea was working for a Poipet NGO as a health care worker in Nov 2001 when she was approached by a man who identified himself as “Mr Cloak.” Cloak told her that he was a health care educator in Thailand and that he could find her work in Thailand’s Hua Hin province.

“[Cloak] learned that I was a health care worker and started a conversation with me,” she said. “He told me, ‘you have a skill and it would be very important if you worked in Thailand to educate Cambodian workers about reproductive health, HIV and STDs.'” She and another woman were promised salaries of 10,000 Baht (about $250) each month.

After she agreed to go, Cloak went to Phnom Penh to buy a passport for her. He took her picture and an application, and for $150 he got her a real Cambodian passport, she later told the Banteay Meanchey court.

Then Kong Kunthea says she was accompanied to a market on the Thai side of the border by a couple she had not seen before or since. Next, she and her companion were passed off to another unidentified Thai man at the market and they got into a car.

Her passport was confiscated on the Thai side of the border. “They said they wanted to keep it because they were afraid it would be stolen or lost,” she said.

Instead of going to her destination in Hua Hin, she was driven directly to a karaoke parlor in the town of Taungsong, near the border with Malaysia.

At the house, she said, “they told us to dress properly and put on makeup and told us it was time to go to work. Then they brought us inside the karaoke parlor.” On the first day they worked as waitresses, “but on the second day they forced us to sleep with the clients. We do not know exactly how much they paid for it, we did not get any money,” she said.

After two weeks in Taungsong another Thai man brought them to the tourist destination of Hua Hin. There, she was kept for a month and a day in a house with Cambodian amputees, street children and beggars. They were deployed from the house to beg for money on the street. At night she said she was forced to work as a prostitute.

“One day…the other woman and I decided to run back to Cambodia. On the way, Cloak’s brother and the Thai house owner shot at me but did not hit me,” Kong Kunthea said.

She approached the Thai police at the Hua Hin train station and they arranged to send her back to Poipet. When she returned-with the support of local NGOs-she filed a complaint and Cloak’s brother, identified as Sokhon, was arrested.

“The ringleaders will make a passport for anyone who wants to work in Thailand,” said Kouch Theam, deputy police chief of the committee to fight against sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking.

“The passport is easy to get because immigration police in Phnom Penh don’t care. It is not scrutinized and immigration officials don’t look into the background of the applicant. The ringleader can just bring the photo and application to the passport office and immigration police will issue it.”

The ringleaders pay the full price for the passport because they can make the money back when they sell the woman to a brothel owner. “They pay $150 for the passport. because they can get 15,000 or 20,000 Baht (about $375 to $500) for selling the girl,” Kouch Theam said.

When the women get to Thailand, their passports are confiscated, leaving them in the lurch because if they are caught without it they will be arrested, Kouch Theam said.

And illicitly acquired passports can be easier than obtaining one legally for people in a hurry.

“Even if you are not in the trafficking business, it is easier to give one of the people hanging around outside the passport office [money] for a passport. And we have heard of two places in Phnom Penh where you can also get visa stamps,” said Graham Shaw, international program officer for the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.

But, Shaw said, there are easier and cheaper ways to get across the border. Children, for example, can cross for free on a day pass, and a day pass for market workers only costs 10 Baht. There are numerous places to cross the river under the cover of darkness.

“At the river at night, documents don’t matter,” Shaw said.

The Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in Poipet estimates that 25,165 Cambodians illegally crossed the border into Thailand between November 2001 and June 2002. Their figures do not include Vietnamese nationals who use the border as a gateway into Thailand and then Malaysia.

“The problem here that causes trafficking is poor living standards, poverty, joblessness, poor salary. It draws those people’s attention to go to Thailand. [And] The ringleaders-Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese-all have good relations with rings in Thailand and they exchange information,” said Chhea Manith, director of the International Organization for Migration-supported transit center for trafficked women and children in Poipet.

“They can pass at the official gate during the daytime or pass in groups at night. They pay Thai and Cambodian police, they both take bribes,” Chhea Manith said.

She said there are some 20 places where people can cross at night-each guarded by police and soldiers.

Often, Chhea Manith said the district police bring these people to headquarters to question them, asking for 100 to 200 Baht (about $2.20 to $4.40) for each person to let them go free. “Police do this almost every day. Every month, 2,000 to 3,000 [people] are brought back by Thai authorities.”

Many of these cases are brought before the court, “but the victims feel disappointed with the court and have lost trust in the court,” said Ma Sameat, monitoring supervisor for the CWCC.

“One day after [Cloak’s brother] was arrested Mr Cloak suggested that I drop the charges against his brother, he said he will give me 100,000 Baht (about $220), but if I declined, he said he would give it to the court to free his brother.”

Indeed, the court did not even try the case before issuing a decision in Sokhon’s favor.
“The victim is employed and better educated so she could consider right from wrong, so the court does not believe she was cheated or persuaded to be sold into the brothel in Thailand,” Banteay Meanchey Court Judge Top Chan Sereyvuth said in his decision.

“The court dropped the charges, they had no trial, the court just issued a decision to drop the charges,” Kong Kunthea said.

Top Chan Sereyvuth said he dropped the charges because there was not enough evidence against the suspect. He added that since one of the women complained against the suspect, but the other one spoke on his behalf, he was compelled to drop the charges.

“I think that the accused did not cheat the suspect because he was not the one who went into Thailand with her, she went with a Thai man,” the judge said. “If it was true, he would not be responsible, the Thai man would be and the court can not investigate in Thailand.”

He suggested that Kong Kunthea had some sort of Vendetta against the suspect.

“It was very easy for the court to drop the case, they can get a payoff and will always say that the woman went voluntarily,” said Kouch Theam. “But even though the girl went voluntarily, sometimes she is underage, so it is illegal and the ringleader must be punished. But the court does not read the documents, it just thinks and then says.”

While Cambodia and Thailand collaborate on stemming the flow of illegal drugs in the region, there is currently no cooperation on human trafficking.

“As far as we know there are no formal lines of communication. We have tried to set up cross border mechanisms for drug control between Banteay Meanchey and Aranyapathet [provinces]. It would be the natural progression,” Shaw said.

Once a year, [drug talks] are done on a national level between officials from Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Every six months provincial governors meet and every three months district governors meet. Border police meet to discuss drug control once a month, Shaw said.

The IOM has brokered a Memorandum of Understanding on trafficking between Cambodia and Thailand, and that is a start said Shaw, but an agreement needs to be reached between [National Police Director-General] Hok Lundy and his counterpart in Thailand.

“Once there is a mechanism for discussion, then [the UN] will introduce our good offices,” Shaw said. In the meantime, he said, it is impossible to estimate the numbers of people illegally crossing the border. “We can’t really do a survey, it is all in the black pot of society,” he said.

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