Noi, a human trafficker, on a boat
Just north of Phuket, Thailand's package holiday paradise, is the town of Baan Bang Khi. There, in a simple wooden house, lives a little old lady called Noi who runs most of the human trafficking industry on the west coast of Thailand.
I was surprised when Noi agreed to meet me for an interview about her business, but when she explained how she has the Thai police in her pocket it began to make a little more sense – what does she have to fear from the press? Noi claims she pays the police handsomely not only to look the other way, but to actively participate in the smuggling of refugees from neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Laos.
"The authorities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand work together with us," she said. "First, I receive a call from the brokers or the Thai marine police, who tell me where the refugees are." Most of the refugees come by boat and are collected offshore, before Noi picks them up and "[houses] them in shacks in the jungle".
She proudly claimed that all brokers working for her are ethical because they don’t beat their captives, which isn't the case with other Thai human traffickers. "They have to beat them to get the money faster," Noi said of her competition. "They call their relatives on the phone to say they are torturing them. Sometimes they even electrocute them while they're on the phone to their parents. Those whose relatives can pay are trafficked. Those who can’t are often sold into slavery. For women, it’s the sex trade."
A boat carrying Rohingya refugees surrounded by Marine Police.
I asked Noi what she thinks of the smugglers who mistreat refugees. "I would like to chop them up and throw them for the dogs to eat," she replied, smiling. And it's unlikely she was exaggerating for comic effect, having spent nine and a half years in jail for murdering an entire family – a father, a mother and their son. I asked her why she murdered them, but all she'd tell me is that they were criminals and that she killed them with a knife. "Chop, chop, chop," she mimed. "Then I threw them to the fishes."
To pass the time in jail, Noi wrote a letter to the king of Thailand every day. The king never responded, but that didn't stop her from sending him friendly, personal letters detailing her every day, from what she had for breakfast to who she had it with. Every letter was signed off with a plea for clemency. One day, 14 years ago, she got her wish and was freed for good behaviour. Compared to other inmates, she said she lived well in jail. Now, in her humble – yet deceptively expansive – home, she looks every bit the kindly godmother.
Noi claims what she does is charity – that she's helping the refugees, most of whom are Muslim Rohingyas fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. They're trying to reach the Islamic nation of Malaysia, but they have to pass through Thailand first to get there. And since they're crossing borders illegally and trying to sneak into countries that don’t want them, no one else is willing to help.
This, according to Noi, is what makes human trafficking not just ethical, but necessary. For a price, she provides transport from the threat of unjustified detainment, alleged sexual abuse or death in their own country to a new life of safety. It’s a service that no government, NGO or UN agency offer.
Noi meeting a fishing boat
"Some believe human trafficking is ethical. But it becomes unethical when people are tortured or sold for money," explained Chutima Sidasathian, a local journalist who's spent years covering the issue of human trafficking in Thailand. Noi says those kind of things don't happen under her watch, but after she told me that she doesn't feed her captives very much – and from the way she seemed to enjoy telling me about how exactly trafficked people are tortured – it's difficult to decide whether to believe her or not.
While I spoke to Noi, my translator Abu – a Rohingya living in Thailand – waited down the street in our car. He had only agreed to come to Noi's house because the car had blacked out windows he could hide behind. For months he's been trying to pressure the police into closing down the camps where brokers keep the refugees, telling me he's even led police to one such camp in the jungle: "'Your police station is only two kilometres from the camp in the rubber plantation,' I told them. 'It's big, and you don’t know about it. I am a thousand kilometres away [in Bangkok] and I know.'"
For his trouble, Abu has received death threats and a price has been put on his head. He avoids staying at home with his family in case he is attacked.
On the party Island of Phuket, I met Ismair – another Rohingya who fled Myanmar earlier this year – in the small wooden shack he calls home. "We docked our boat off the coast of Thailand after travelling for 12 days. Then we were held by the Thai navy who sold us to the human traffickers," he told me.
"Over the years, with thousands of Rohingya sailing from Burma and boats being intercepted by the Thai navy or another arm of the military, trafficking has become part of the normal process of dealing with the problem," Chutima explained. "There is indisputable evidence of the military capturing and handing over boat people directly to traffickers."
Reports suggest that this isn't where the corruption ends; one policeman allegedly lured a Rohingya woman and her children away from the refugee shelter, promising to send them on to Malaysia. Instead, according to a local news source, they were raped repeatedly. Chutima told me that, initially, the police refused to take any action because "they didn’t want to turn against one of their own". Each morning she would wake up at 5AM and drive two hours north to the police station in Phang Na to spend the day pressuring the police to act. Sometimes she would call the commander and pretend she was a journalist working for international news outlets like the BBC or CNN in a bid to scare him.
Finally, her efforts paid off and the officer was arrested. The headline hit newspapers across South East Asia, which never would have happened without Chutima's perseverance. Unfortunately, she told me, the charges against the police officer have since been dropped because the victim has vanished.
Back in Ismair’s shack, he showed me his scars. He spent weeks in a camp and was tortured while the traffickers demanded money from his relatives. The scars across his back aren't going to disappear, but at least he’s now free and living with other Rohingya in Phuket.
And while thousands of Rohingya have been fortunate enough to make it to freedom in Phuket or Malaysia, many more have been sold into slavery, often to fishing trawlers off Thailand's coasts and in Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds more Rohingya don’t even make it to the shore. The journey from Myanmar by boat can take weeks, with refugees hoarded onto ramshackle crafts – often with hundreds stacked on top of each other – desperate to escape the persecution they face at home. With little food or water, many starve at sea and some boats capsize, killing all on board. When all hope is lost, some have been known to jump off, preferring to drown rather than die the slow death of dehydration.
"A Rohingya boy told me of a man who killed himself to save the others on the boat," Noi said. "He wanted the rest of them to eat his meat, so he slit his throat. When he told me this story, he was crying, but later he started laughing."
Noi seemed to revel in telling me stories like these. I guess being a killer herself, it doesn't bother her. But it did bother me, along with all the other stories I heard about the Rohingya – both about their continued massacre within Myanmar and their long, perilous journeys to find a country that will accept them.
Johnny made a short documentary about the Rohingya, including his interview with Noi, which you can watch here.
More on the Rohingya: