Many in Thailand have been horrified by the images of a young Karen girl’s severely scarred body during the past few days.
The most widely circulated of the pictures in the Thai social and mainstream media is of the young girl standing bare chested wearing only a pair of shorts in a room full of Thai policemen and other men in plainclothes, some with their cameras focused on her. A police officer nearest to the girl closely inspects her body. The young girl in double-plaited hair is shown only from the back, her face unseen, but the scar patterns covering her back are clear enough to horrify and outrage anyone with a heart.
Undoubtedly the girl’s body is the most compelling piece of evidence of the crime, but it also belongs to a young child of twelve. Pictures of the tortured girl are not shown here because as a child victim, the girl is entitled by law to protection from further trauma and treatment with more sensitivity and respect than she has received.
(Disclosure: I myself tweeted her picture when I first saw it on Twitter, gravely shocked. I later found that the picture tweeted was taken from a Daily News report.)
Even more horrific pictures of the girl’s deeply scarred body have been shared in Thai social media and shown in Thai-language newspapers, and a local English-language paper, although none reveals her face. A report by one of the two national English-language newspapers, The Nation, shows a picture of the girl fully covered in a shirt and a jacket and a baseball cap pulled down to cover her entire face.
The shock value of this news is evidently high, and the shock is for multiple reasons. But first about the poor girl.
The Hellish Five Years
According to news reports, the girl who has been given an alias “Air” was kidnapped when she was seven years old. “Air” is a Burmese national of Karen ethnic minority. Her alleged kidnappers and abusers are a Thai couple (pictures shown below) who owned a property near a sugarcane farm where her parents worked in the province of Kamphaengphet located between the northern and central regions of Thailand near the Thai-Burmese border.
After the kidnapping “Air” was kept enslaved in the couple’s house for five years and never allowed outside. She was made to do housework and care for pet dogs and cats, fed only twice a day and subject to unimaginable cruel punishments if she displeased the couple. She was never paid for any work she had done for them.
“Air” described her five years with the couple to reporters:
For the past 5 years I was done cruelness by the owner of the house in many ways and they ordered me to do all the housework… If they got [dissatisfied] they would hit me all over [my] body until I got injured. Sometimes they also slapped at my face and beat me, and if I cried, they would beat me harder until I didn’t dare to shout for [help] from anyone.
I felt as if I was in hell. Once I tried to escape about three years ago. But there was someone who sent me to the police, and the police took me back to the house owners again. My running away made them so much angry, they hit my head against the wall, and used a shoe to slap at my face, and used the scissors to cut at my ears for punishment. (Pattaya Daily News)
The details of the cruelties she endured are gruesome. In punishment she was sometimes put in a dog cage while boiling hot water was poured over her. She was never taken to hospital for her injuries. The only treatment she received for her body burns was cleaning of the wounds with saline solution.
When reporters saw her after five years of such treatments, “Air” had scars from being scalded by hot water throughout her body and her two arms were severely burned, much of the skin on her arm melted; the injuries affected the arm muscles connected with her body making her unable to normally lift or move her arms.
The Alleged Kidnappers and Abusers and Their Arrest
Mr. Nathee Taeng-orn, age 35, and Ms. Rattanakorn Piyavoratharm, age 33, are the couple who allegedly kidnapped, enslaved and tortured “Air” over the past five years, since May 20, 2008, when the Karen girl was just seven years old. Mr. Nathee is an engineer in a factory and Ms. Rattanakorn an owner of a dog grooming shop. They are residents of Kamphaengphet and said to be related to some local “influential” persons.
Mr. Thanawat Sathit, head of the Kamphaengphet Children and Families shelter, told reporters that this is so far the largest case [of abuse] the shelter has come across. He admitted to being “afraid” because the alleged perpetrators are “influential”. After his shelter had taken in the victim, they were cautious and contacted the police to investigate the case in the night time.
The shelter officials notified the police on February 2 and it took the police four days to gather evidence and get arrest warrants. On February 7, 2013 the police arrested the couple.
The police charged the couple with multiple crimes, including abduction, child kidnapping, illegal detention, assault, forced slavery, forced labour, child labour, and human trafficking. The couple initially told the police that the girl “accidentally” burned herself with hot water but refused to say anything further, insisting they would only give their testimony in court. (So we are saved from hearing their defense that the child also clipped her own earlobes, hit her own head, and locked herself in the dog cage as she poured hot water all over herself, all by accident during her voluntary self-enslavement to serve them in return for their many kindnesses.)
The couple denied all charges and given the severity of the crimes were promptly released on 700,000 baht (US$23,333) bail. (Forgive my sarcasm, but murder and rape suspects are routinely given bail in Thailand–typically when the right connections and money are involved.)
It might be said that the poor child was finally released from her hellish prison by a cat. After her first failed escape three years before (in which the local police sent her back to her “employers” and she suffered severe punishment), the girl was understandably afraid to incur any more wrath of the couple.
But on January 31, 2013, the pet cat she was feeding ran out of the house. Fearing the punishment from the couple the girl climbed over the fence in search of the cat, and it then occurred to her that she could also make an escape herself. She went to a house of an old neighbor in the sugarcane farm and a couple of ladies then contacted social services.
A woman among the rescuing neighbors told reporters that she initially refused to go to social services, afraid that she would be sent back to her “employers” like the last time. But after much persuasion she agreed to go to the shelter.
The Outrage and Pouring Sympathies
The cruelty in this case has sparked huge outrage among the Thai public. Angry condemnations are thrown at the couple. It seems members of the public can find no curse words strong enough to condemn the man and the woman. They are called “evil,” “inhuman,” “worse than animals,” etc.
In my thinking, though, there are no animals capable of such wickedness and sickening cruelties. Only humans, the worst among us, are capable of such acts.
Sympathies have poured in for the girl, while many curse the couple to the worst hell. Some call for their death. It is this kind of crime that incites our most primitive anger and instinct to see justice done–an eye for an eye. Not many among us would cry cruelty if the couple were to be dipped in boiling oil before our eyes.
Members of the public are angry that the couple got bail, yet few are surprised. Some wonder if in other, more civilized countries where there is a real rule of law, this couple would be released on bail.
But the outrage doesn’t stop there.
The Social Protection
The social safety net in this case seems to have too many holes.
The deeper one digs into the story, the more questions emerge. Have the girl’s parents ever searched for their lost child during the past five years? Have the neighbors never seen the girl with any evidence of abuse?
Why did the police return her to her abusers and not her parents three years ago? Even if the girl showed no scars at the time, why didn’t the police return her to her parents? And even if the girl omitted the information about her parents (who could be illegal immigrants working without a permit) the fact that the girl ran away from the “house owners” as she called her abductors and abusers, should be enough for the police to send her to social services then.
A seven-year-old child is supposed to be in school. By Thai law all children under the age of 15 must be attending school full time, including all foreign migrant children living in Thailand. Thai public schools are required to take all children regardless of nationality or legal status. When a Burmese-Karen girl was found running away from her “employers”, why didn’t the police remember this law for compulsory education, and the child labour law that prohibits a nine-year-old from being made to work full time?
The Justice System
It isn’t that there aren’t any laws or social protection mechanisms in Thai society, even for the most downtrodden, but the problems have been and continue to be that laws are not enforced. And it’s often the law enforcers who neglect to enforce and uphold the laws, or to be concerned about justice and what’s right. Some may even be on the wrong side of the law.
Why were the couple given bail when their alleged crimes are so grave? Did the police support or oppose their bail request? Aren’t they seen as flight risks? (After their release days ago, they are reported to have left their home.)
The police have been quoted saying that if found guilty, the couple could be looking at the maximum punishment of life sentences. But whether the perpetrators will be justly punished remains a question in many minds.
The Remedy for the Victim
“Air” is now safe in the government shelter, under the watchful eyes of the guards to ensure her safety. But why ensuring safety becomes a burden put on the victim and the witness is another question for the Thai police.
Initial examination of her injuries indicates that more than half of her skin surface has been damaged and some damage has reached the bone level. Many agencies have stepped in to offer help. She will be provided appropriate medical treatments which will likely also include cosmetic surgeries. She is also promised further protection and habilitation. She might get a back pay for the unpaid work she performed for the couple.
Still young and resilient, she will learn to smile again.
A Test for Thailand
As shocking as this case is, “Air” is not the first or only victim of cruel treatments of young foreign migrants in Thailand. In 2005, the International Labour Organization (ILO) urged the Thai government to take “urgent steps” to better protect documented and undocumented foreign migrant workers from abusive employers, especially domestic workers who tend to be overwhelmingly female and young.
The case highlighted in the May 2005 ILO press release is very similar to the present case – a 17-year-old Burmese-Karen girl suffering severe injuries including a fractured skull and a shattered ribcage at the hands of her Thai employer, a 32-year-old woman, who was arrested, charged and let out on bail.
There have been other cases of abuse with varying degrees of injuries and cruelties. Similar shocking cases of abuses of domestic workers have been reported in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries where there are many foreign domestic workers. Why domestic workers? Because they are often hidden behind walls and close doors. And foreign domestic workers are the most vulnerable to abuse due to their place at the bottom rung of society, as young, female, and sometimes illegal foreigners.
We ask why someone can be so heartless as to inflict such cruelty on another human being, let alone a young helpless child as in this case. Aren’t the poor victims also human? The victims’ low status, being from the poorest and powerless social groups in society is one explanation. Racism and xenophobia are also often underlying reasons for such cruelty. It’s as though they were fair game. Few will care about the poor foreigners’ wellbeing. At least not as much as they would their own kind. It is no accident that migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, Thailand’s poorest neighbors, have been on the receiving end of many grave mistreatments at the hand of the Thai people. (The Irrawaddy has an article from a Burmese perspective, “Girl’s plight highlights abuses suffered by migrants.”)
This is not to say that Thais are cruel, but it can’t be denied that there is a general lack of sensitivity to the plight of many poor foreign migrants, and many Thais still don’t feel that they are entitled to the same human rights as nationals. This, I believe, is also the case in other societies where similar cases of abuse occur. Poor foreign migrants are often treated at best as second class, if not third class unwanted guests behind rich foreigners and poor locals.
The plight of poor migrants aren’t often known and usually only the most severe cases are publicized after much damage has already been done. In the case of domestic workers few neighbors want to interfere with what goes on in another household.
The Thai public’s compassion has been awakened, but to prevent more cases like this happening in the future, I hope more Thais will take proactive steps and lend their helping hand at an earlier stage of abuse.
After long excluding domestic workers from labor protection, the Thai government has finally (sort of) recognized domestic work as work and granted some basic rights to domestic workers in a ministerial regulation issued in November 2012. That’s the government’s way of saying housemaids are employees with human and workers’ rights like anyone else, and not slaves.
The nature of the crime in this latest case has sparked public outrage and sympathy for the girl is enormous. The public mood is for heavy punishment, but will justice be served? Will the Thai justice system show the world that at least in this poor child’s case the rule of power and influence won’t trump compassion and the rule of law?
Note: This article was originally published on Siam Voices blog on Asian Correspondent on February 13, 2013.