The Times January 4 1998
Members of a Burmese tribe who were rescued from captivity by welfare workers have been sent back to their kidnappers by Thai police, Andrew Drummond reports from Mai Ai
AN attempt to free the captive women and children of a Burmese long-necked hill tribe, who have been kept under guard as a tourist attraction for visitors to Northern Thailand, has ended in failure with rescuers saying they left the district fearing for their lives.
Despite protestations from refugee officials and a Thai child welfare group, the 32 surviving members of the Padaung tribe, who were kidnapped last year and made exhibits in a 'human zoo', were handed back into the care of their kidnappers and a gang leader.
While it is not unusual in Thailand for district officials and police to work in collusion with gangsters, and in many cases be on their payroll, Sudarat Serewat, a child welfare worker, said she was shocked by events in the town of Mai Ai, northern Thailand, and worried about the country's human rights image.
'I am deeply saddened and very concerned or these people, who cried out for help,' she said. Ms Sudarat said she would return to Bangkok and raise the matter at a higher level of government.
(Above Hands up who wants to leave)
Central to the row are the large sums being made by a Thai businessman, newspaper publisher and nightclub owner, Thana Nakluang, (right with local police), who was named by The Times last month after we followed the trail of the kidnapped Padaung to his camp near Mai Ai
Here the Padaung were made to build bamboo huts next to a Thai Army Ranger post, and are guarded by his men, who live in barracks and have an armoury of M16s.
Tourists are charged between Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£l and Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£S to look at the women. Guides accompanying tourists claim that generous Thai people have rallied together to give the Padaung land and a living.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Padaung say they are deprived of medical attention and schooling for their children, forbidden to leave the camp and that two have died through lack of medical help.
In ugly scenes outside Mai Ai police station, Nakluang's bodyguards threatened to beat a Times photographer,who had arrived after Ms Sudarat had accompanied several Padaung to give statements about their kidnapping. 'Keep out of our business you lizard,' said Rakkiat Siriwalai,(left) whom the Padaung had identified as one of the kidnappers.
From inside the police station the four Padaung men begged the refugee and Thai officials not to let the police send them back to the camp. 'You have to take us all out together now, or we do not know what will happen,' said one.
Thana Nakluang denied the people were held against their will.
'I am looking after them out of the goodness of my heart. They are much better off here. And they are free to come and go. Obviously I make money too.'
He denied the Padaung had been kidnapped, saying they had merely wandered across the border near his camp.
When I asked him if he would tell the Padaung they were free to go, he replied: 'I could not do that. Their welfare is my responsibility.'
Surapong Chaiyanan, Acting Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Ministry, said yesterday he had submitted a full report to the Thai Ministry of Interior and the Thai Army would take action if the report proved true.