Kidnapped in Thailand: When 'friends' sell you to human trafficking syndicates

11 Oct 2023 09:02am
Photo for illustrative purposes only - 123RF
Photo for illustrative purposes only - 123RF
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KUALA LUMPUR - One evening in April, David got an offer that excited him. A small business owner selling phone accessories in Sarawak, he had been at a loose end and seeking to increase his income.

Someone in a WhatsApp group he was in suggested a business opportunity while he was vacationing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On top of it, the person, whom David described as "more like an acquaintance”, offered to pay for the trip for him and a friend.

Speaking in halting English and Malay, occasionally requiring the help of an interpreter, the 22-year-old man told Bernama he wondered why this person, dubbed Steven, was so generous especially since he had only known the guy for a few months.

But then he thought he should not look a gift horse in the mouth.

It was a decision that would come to haunt David and his friend Laura (not her real name) - instead of meeting Steven in the mountainous and historical Chiang Mai, they were abducted at gunpoint and transported across the border through Chiang Rai, Thailand. Their captors then sold them to a scam centre in Laukkaing, Myanmar, where they were held for two weeks.

Sitting in his friend’s apartment in Kuala Lumpur a few months after his ordeal, David still seems in disbelief that he had become one of the estimated hundreds if not thousands of Malaysians who have been scammed and trafficked to work as online scammers. After all, he was not ignorant of all the human trafficking news involving Malaysians, knowing he and his friend were prime targets as native Mandarin speakers.

Experts say what happened to him just shows the ever-evolving ways human traffickers and syndicates working for the scammers utilise to lure their next victim. And, governments, authorities and activists, as well as the laws, are consistently having to play catch up.

"Human traffickers are extra creative and they’re always looking for new ways to trap people into forced criminality,” said Adrian Anthony Pereira, founder and executive director of Malaysian-based migrant rights group North-South Initiative.

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And when that happens, getting victims out can be extremely difficult and skate close to the edge of legality.

ABDUCTED

David first got an inkling something was wrong when Steven failed to show up to meet him and his friend at the Chiang Mai International Airport as promised. Instead, there was a taxi driver holding a sign with their names on it. The driver had brought a friend along which David thought was odd but did not examine further. He thought they were both Myanmar nationals.

Once they were in the car, the driver’s friend pulled out a gun and forced them to hand over their passports and mobile phones.

"(They threatened us) telling us to sit tight and be quiet. We didn’t dare do anything. If we did, where would they have taken and sold us?” he said.

It took them four days to arrive in Laukkaing, a town in northern Myanmar near the Chinese border. David remembers traveling on small side roads in the mountains. There were checkpoints but each time the guard on duty waved them through with little fuss.

Finally, they arrived at an eight-storey building with a casino at the bottom and surrounded by men with assault rifles. Their presence crushed any remaining hope David had of perhaps making an escape and finding help, notwithstanding the language barrier.

Inside there were other people like him, lured with false promises and forced to work.

"They were very kind. We were lucky,” David said. His friend Laura was already terrified and the staff inside the building allowed them to stay together instead of separating them.

He said the syndicate gave them three days to learn to use the Little Red Book or Xiaohongshu, a social media platform similar to TikTok and popular among the Chinese. They would have to sign a contract and scam users into buying crypto. They refused.

When David asked to leave, they told him and Laura they had to pay them a ransom.

Stranded deep in Myanmar near the Chinese border, things looked grim. Their captors so far have not been harsh but how long will that last? Agreeing to their captors' demands seemed a matter of time.

But then a miracle happened.

David said three days later, local soldiers checked on the building and the workers. After seeing that he and Laura had not signed a contract, they told him and his friend to pack up their things and took them to Pangkham, which was about nine hours by road from the Myanmar-Thai border.

Once there, David and Laura borrowed someone’s phone to make a call to their families. But now they had to find their own way out of Myanmar.

The end of their ordeal had never seemed so near yet so far.

WAY OUT

There are many ways people get trafficked but the most common one seems to be through job scams that promise unrealistically high salaries that don’t match the victims’ qualifications. But the rescue, if it happens at all, usually follows the same lines.

MCA Public Services and Complaints Department head Datuk Seri Michael Chong has helped rescue 58 people out of 170 cases reported to the MCA from March 2022 to Oct 6, 2023. Most of the people rescued had been stranded in Cambodia. Other countries they were stranded in include Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

"We couldn’t find out what happened to the rest,” he added.

Chong helps the victims by informing their families and applying pressure on the police and the embassies to contact their counterparts in the countries concerned and other law enforcement agencies such as Interpol and Aseanapol.

"The counterparts there will know what to do. It will be at the mercy of them because it’s up to them how they’re going to do the rescue,” he said.

He said they also notify Malaysian business owners operating in Cambodia and other countries to be on the lookout or to aid any victim who comes to them.

Everything is done with a paper trail. It also helps when the country where the human trafficking victims are in has a functioning government.

Chong admits doing the rescues the proper way can take a long time.

Some families are not willing to wait that long with little guarantee of success, however. And if they had to do some things that are not necessarily above board, so be it.

In David’s case, once his and Laura’s families knew where they were, they contacted Victor Wong, an influential Thai-based Malaysian businessman to help get them out. Wong has cooperated with the Malaysian police and the Malaysian embassy in Thailand in the past to get human trafficking victims out.

"David’s mother wanted him to go to the (Myanmar) police but I wasn’t sure it would work. They might get into trouble because they had been smuggled in,” Wong told Bernama.

When he tried to arrange transportation for David and Laura, he found he could not get them past a checkpoint in Myanmar into Thailand, which required a special pass.

He said he ended up paying some Myanmar nationals to pick up David and Laura and drive them through the forest to Tachileik, where the Thai Army was waiting to take them across the border.

Wong admitted what he did was not proper procedure but insisted it was the only way to get them out safely. David and Laura’s families provided part of the payment to hire the group that transported them out.

Pereira understood the reasoning but disagreed with using gray methods to rescue victims. He advised desperate families to follow proper procedure, saying not doing so may perpetuate the problem.

How he got out of Myanmar did not matter to David as long as he managed to get out of there.

The eldest of four siblings, he kept saying they got lucky considering the place he and Laura were held in was far away from the Myanmar-Thai border, where rescues and escapes are often easier. As they were only missing for two weeks, their visas were still valid and they could leave without going through immigration jail.

He said he decided to tell his story to warn people that friends are not necessarily trustworthy.

"You have to be alert. Take what your friends say with a grain of salt. Don’t believe so easily,” he said, adding he is no longer friends with any of the people in the WhatsApp group concerned. - BERNAMA