Many eyes have been watching the case of horrific abuse of a young Karen girl from Burma by a Thai couple who allegedly abducted, enslaved and tortured her for five years since she was seven years old (I reported the details last week).
Given the shockingly cruel nature of the abuse, many have been hoping that the huge amount of attention might make a difference in this case and an underprivileged victim will for once get the justice she deserves.
But it is not to be. Thailand – more precisely Thai law enforcement – has failed the poor child yet again. While there have been criticisms of the insensitive treatment of the girl as a child victim by Thai media and law enforcement officials, it is tragic that this case is turning into yet another familiar failure of the Thai justice system.
Suspects failed to report for police questioning
On Monday February 18, 2013, the Thai couple, the alleged abductors and abusers, failed to show up for questioning with the police as appointed. But that is hardly surprising as they have reportedly disappeared from their home ever since their release on bail on February 7.
The superintendent of Kamphaengphet, Muang district, said he suspected the couple had already fled and left the province. “They had made several monetary transactions.”
A bounty of 100,000 baht (US$3,350) has been set to find the couple and a team of investigators have been assigned to “track them down and bring them back.”
What on earth have the Muang district police been doing in the past ten days to have let the couple slip through their hands? That is, if they were serious about keeping them in town. The media have reported them not at home since the day they got bail!
Unusual attention and quick response – a false hope
As I said last week that this case would be a test for Thailand’s justice system. The Thai judicial system tends to be at best spotty and uneven and at worst unreliable and unfair, soft on the rich and powerful and harsh on the poor and powerless.
Ordinarily victims who are the likes of “Air” – an alias given to the 12-year-old girl – would have little hope of having their plight noticed, much less seeing justice done. The initial quick response from the Thai authorities offered a small hope that would turn out to be just a wishful thinking.
Thai authorities have shown strong sympathy for the victim – that is unusual in itself although it is hard to imagine any other reaction to this case. Equally unusual, the governments of both Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) have swiftly stepped in to offer help.
Since her rescue the child victim has been taken under the responsibility of the provincial unit of Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security which provides services to victims of violence, including human trafficking.
The Burmese embassy in Bangkok assured the Burmese migrant community in Thailand that their government was treating the case as a priority and would urge immediate legal actions from the Thai government. A Burmese labor official was dispatched to visit the girl in the government shelter in Kamphaengphet. He found that she was reunited with her family and beginning to recover from the trauma. He delivered 20,000 baht (US$670) from the Burmese Labor Ministry for the care of the girl.
Chief of Thailand’s Department of Rights and Liberties Protection under the Ministry of Justice also visited the child victim and handed her 30,000 baht (US$1,000) assistance money. The Nation reported:
He was confident that the police would investigate the case seriously and ensure justice was done for all those involved… As a Thai, he felt bad and apologised for what had happened to the girl, which was a serious human violation carried out by fellow Thais…
Although the girl’s parents were illegal immigrants, he would consult with the Interior Ministry about the possibility of making this a special case and providing Thai nationality to the abused girl, so that she could be entitled to healthcare and educational benefits. (The Nation, February 14, 2013)
Since the girl is an undocumented foreign migrant like her parents, the Burmese government would help her parents to obtain an identity document for her, which would be needed for her application for a Thai nationality should the Thai government really decide to give her one (under Thailand’s human trafficking law victims of trafficking even the undocumented are entitled to a temporary stay in the country while their legal case is ongoing).
The Thai government has been covering most of the Karen girl’s medical costs (which is what it is supposed to do by law). Funds have also been raised for the victim through the shelter. By Friday, February 15, around 100,000 baht (US$3,350) had been collected, most coming from Burmese migrant workers in Bangkok and in other parts of Thailand.
Moreover, the governor of Kamphaengphet has also visited the victim along with the spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office, who is a medical doctor. They are seen inspecting the girl here. The doctor took a lot of pictures of “Air” for later consultation with experts for the care she will need. Regarding the criminal case, the officials told reporters “let the law take its course” [but] also “let this be an example against use of child labor… child labor shouldn’t happen, let alone child abuse…”
Terrible crimes, a tragedy and travesty of justice
According to the social worker who has been taking care of “Air” at the government shelter, she was subject to cruel punishment during the five years with the couple for no other reason than she might have been slow to respond to orders. The punishments involving hot-water burning and earlobe-clipping were one-time incidents that happened some years ago, but various forms of physical punishment were routine. The girl said she begged the couple to return her to her parents but to no avail.
The video below shows an interview (in Thai) at the shelter with a social worker, the girl’s tearful parents, and the girl herself by reporter Noppatjak Attanon for a TV morning news show. Her mother said she has been brokenhearted over the loss of her child and the child returned to her was not the same. She also said that she was very angry with the couple whom she and her husband once worked for. She could not understand why the couple had treated her child so terribly, given they were very good workers for them. The family wants to return to Burma once the child’s legal case is resolved.
As the public has been informed, the couple were taken in to hear formal charges on February 7 and released on the same day on a 700,000 baht (US$23,350) bail. The Bangkok Post reported last Thursday:
The pair have been charged with seven counts of aggravated assault with use of torture or cruel treatment; conspiracy to hold a person and cause serious injury to them; conspiracy to hold a person and require them to perform forced labour; conspiracy to hold a person in slavery or servitude; conspiracy to abduct or detain a child under the age of 15 occasioning serious injury; kidnapping a child; and conspiracy to commit human trafficking.
Pol Lt Gen Wanchai said investigators would press an additional charge of sheltering illegal migrants against the couple on Monday, in addition to the seven counts that carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The suspects, who were arrested last Thursday, denied all charges and said they would testify in court. They were freed on bail after their lawyer offered 700,000 baht as collateral. (Bangkok Post, February 14, 2013)
The couple were told to return for further questioning with the police in the morning of February 18, but as we now know they never showed up.
Trauma relived (once again)
On the same day, the child victim was taken to the crime scene by police, accompanied by social workers to the house where she was held prisoner, enslaved and abused. She was asked to point out where she slept and worked, and the key places where she was abused and tortured with hot water burning and how she was put in the dog cage.
It was no surprise that the girl was again traumatized. She was reportedly shaken at some specific locations in the house, but supposedly the social workers were there to console her. The ordeal for the girl lasted one hour. The question is, was that the last time she would be put through a crime reenactment?
Meanwhile, the couple were not there to help reenact the crimes. The police and their entourage were given access to the house by the couple’s housekeeper.
Perhaps it is not appropriate to call this travesty a miscarriage of justice as it is doubtful if justice was ever conceived in this case. The police had four days to collect evidence before charging the suspects with many serious crimes, but then proceeded to give them bail despite a very high probability of their never returning for questioning.
Many Thai observers questioned the wisdom and the motive of the police in giving the couple bail (although it is the court that has the right to give or deny bail, it usually follows the recommendation of the police). In this case the police presumably did not oppose the bail request.
Whether or not the Kamphaengphet police did not oppose the bail request in good faith and simply misjudged the suspects’ trustworthiness is anybody’s guess.
Note: The article was originally published on Siam Voices blog on Asian Correspondent on February 18, 2013.
(Update: Three months after this article was written, the couple are still on the run. For more on this case and Thailand’s justice system, see the next article.)