It's dark days on the remote Thai-Myanmar border as authorities continue to uncover new allegations in a widening investigation into an underage sex trafficking ring that already threatens to ensnare two provincial governors and a cadre of senior police officials.
The case has shed fresh light on a problem that anti-trafficking groups say has long plagued Northern Thailand's Mae Hong Son province: the sale of underage girls into prostitution.
The sparsely populated province, one of Thailand's poorest, is home to several groups of indigenous hill tribes—many of whom lack access to formal government IDs. It makes them particularly vulnerable to trafficking rings, especially when they're as well connected as those in Mae Hong Son.
The province's governor Suebsak Iamwichana and several prominent local police officers have been accused of running a sex ring that offered up teenaged girls as "dessert" to police, military, and government officials. The governor now faces arrest, alongside six others. He denies the allegations.
Mae Hong Son's former governor, a man named Pipat Ekphaphan, is also under investigation after photos that appeared to show him embracing a naked girl were uncovered by authorities. Pipat, now the governor of a different northern province, says the photos were doctored.
"I know who did that," he told local media.
The shocking case broke when a former police informant levied the allegations against Suebsak, saying her teenaged daughter was coerced with drugs, lured into sex work, and gang raped. She reportedly brought the case to the attention of the police first, pushing for an investigation for six months with little success. It was only later, when another local official accused Suebsak of ignoring accusations of sex trafficking in the province, that the case finally broke.
That official, Boonyarit Nipawanit, has now complained that evidence keeps "getting lost" on the way to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). Local anti-trafficking groups accused Boonyarit of bungling the case, and hundreds threatened to protest outside his office. He was transferred to a new office, where he says he will continue to work on the investigation alongside the NACC and the Royal Thai Police.
Initial reports say that as many as 20 women were forced into sex work by police who acted as pimps. The victims were reportedly marked with a tattoo of an owl and forced to sleep with senior public officials and visiting government staff at local resorts. Boonyarit says the sex parties were an "unofficial tradition" in the province. The underage girls were seen as a gift for government officials who were freshly assigned work in the remote region, he explained.
The case, shocking in its breadth, now threatens to take down some of the province's most-powerful people. But for anti-trafficking experts, the involvement of local politicians and police has highlighted a problem that has long been a persistent, but under-covered issue.
"I've been doing this for 15 years, and I can tell you that every case I have done, there have been [police] officers behind those cases," Ronnasit Proeksayajiva, a chief investigator with the anti-trafficking NGO Nvader, told VICE Indonesia. "By that I mean they either support the traffickers, they take bribes, or even run the business."
Prostitution is illegal, but hidden in plain view in Thailand. The industry is so ever-present, from the streets of districts like Soi Patpong in Bangkok to the remote border towns of the country's north, that the country's name is often associated with sin.
"So in Thailand we have 77 provinces," Ronnasit says. "In all 77 provinces they have this kind of ring, more or less, and even more in provinces that are in tourist areas."
It's also big business, with some estimates placing the country's sex work industry at a whopping $6.4 billion USD (Rp 85 trillion) annually. But when investigations into trafficking syndicates routinely uncover evidence of police collusion, efforts to bring charges against those at the top can be extremely dangerous.
When Thailand's top human trafficking investigator launched a probe into the mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers found in the country's south, he quickly found himself in dangerous waters as the investigation implicated prominent members of the police, military, and government.
Then the threats started to pour in. Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin, a man known as an "honest, no nonsense" investigator, feared for his life and fled to Australia, where he applied for asylum. There are "influential people involved in human trafficking. There are some bad police and bad military who do these kind of things. Unfortunately, those bad police and bad military are the ones that have power," he told the Guardian Australia after arriving in Melbourne.
This case is already facing difficulties of its own. Evidence keeps vanishing, and, of greater concern, so do witnesses. The young woman who allegedly had sex with the province's governor has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. If she doesn't resurface, a successful prosecution of Suebsak remains a remote possibility, Ronnasit says.
"We still don't [enough] have hard evidence to convict him," he told VICE Indonesia. "Why? Because the woman has now disappeared. I don't know who took her. We have tried to contact her by phone, and Facebook, and so on. So that means no one can take any evidence from her, no one can take any statements from her."
It sends a chilling message to other victims. These young girls, many marginalized since birth, will likely remain hidden unless the national police can promise their safety, Ronnasit explained.
"I believe there are at least 20 victims in this case, but they don't all want to come forward because they are afraid for their safety," he says. "Until the police can ensure their security, or they can arrest all [the traffickers] they won't come out."