The Times Nov 22 1997
Tourists are contributing to Thai slavery writes Andrew Drummond
WOMEN from a remote Burmese hill tribe who are renowned for their long necks are being used as exhibits in a human zoo in Thailand, where they sought refuge after fleeing from Burma’s military junta.
Three of the villagers, who have been found by The Times, are alleged to have died after being deprived of medical attention.
The women, from Kayah state in Burma, went missing a year ago, having been kidnapped by Thai businessmen and placed under armed guard on land by the border with Burma near the village of Thaton, on the River Kok.
Tourists, who have been paying Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£4 a head to view the women, are told by guides that the families are living free and under the care of the Thai military, which has given them the land to live on.
But their relatives outside the camp say that they have been sold into slavery. They are paid Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£3 a month per family by a Thai businessman to look their best for tourists.
Their captors sell them make-up, which they insist the women wear, and aspirin derivatives if they fall ill.
The discovery of the camp comes as Thailand is promoting long-necked women as a tourist attraction for ‘Amazing Thailand Year’, an international publicity campaign. The women told The Times they had been beaten regularly and could not leave.
Civilian guards near the camp had immediate access to M16 weapons and hand-held mortars.
The captives are members of the Padaung hill tribe, an offshoot of the Karenni, an ethnic minority who fought alongside the British Chindits against the Japanese in the Second World War.
Since then, they have been fighting the Burmese military dictatorship for their own state.
The group of Padaung, originally 34 in strength, fled Burma in August last year, leaving their Kayah state village.
For ten days, friendly units of the rebel Karenni army monitored the group as it followed a well-worn route to the Karenni refugee camp of Baan Na Soi near Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand.
There, other long-necked hilltribe relatives are being looked after by the Karenni Refugee Committee in the relative safety of another tourist village that they help to administer.
It has since been learnt, however, that only a few miles short of their destination, the fleeing group was put into minibuses with tinted windows and driven out of the area.
Karen intelligence sources discovered that the guide once a Mae Hong Song tourist guide had sold them, and absconded with the proceeds.
‘We sent out troops after him but they got the news six hours too late.’ said Aung Myat, the deputy chairman of the Karen Relugee Committee in Mae Hong Son.
Three months ago, Karen refugee officials were given the first evidence of the plight of their missing people. They received a tape from a tourist who had visited the Padaung at their new camp and had been asked in deliver it to the refugee committee.
The tape began with the sound of a Padaung woman singing a dirge, but then cut to the voice of a woman pleading for help.
‘Please come now. Things cannot be any worse,’ she said. ‘We would rather die than live here.’
For 30 minutes a succession of men and women poured out their complaints’. ‘We are beaten when they see us writing or trying to talk to tourists secretly,’ a voice said..
Another complained: ‘They won’t let us leave. They guard as with guns.’ Another said: ‘We don’t want to see these people visiting and smiling and laughing at us. We want to be with our own people.’
And yet another said: ‘They won’t let our children go to school. We cannot eat the food they give us. They shout and scream if we do not make foreigners happy.’
Families in the Baan Na Soi Refugee camp recognised the voices of relatives.
Zaw Thet, the only Padaung member on the refugee committee, and a former rebel officer, travelled north to investigate.
‘When I got there, there were 40 armed men at the gates. They had M16s and machine guns. They pointed their guns at me and refused me entrance.
Despite several attempts by the Karenni Refugee Committee to have the families released, the only action taken by the authorities in Chiang Mai province was to arrest the women and charge them with working illegally.
They were then immediately sent back to work in the camp after the businessman Than Nakluang paid their fines. He was also charged with using illegal labour, but the maximum fine he faces is less than the takings from a bus load of tourists.
After an appeal from within Kaya State I visited the camp as a tourist, accompanied by Zaw Thet and an official appointed to investigate child exploitation.
After paying the entrance fee, I entered the camp with the Thai official and was able discreetly to deliver a message in Burmese and play a tape of Zaw Thet talking to his people in Padaung.
The camp village emptied as the Padaung families, at first incredulous, rushed to the gates apparently believing they were to be freed.
Newly arrived tourists looked into the huts, bemused to find them empty. At the gates the Padaung rushed to touch Zaw Thet (left).
The guards were compelled to let him in so the Padaung would at least return to the tourist viewing area.
The Padaung confirmed the allegations they had made on the tape. A camp manager in dark glasses nicknamed Mu, the Thai for pig or pork ‘ denied the brutality. ‘Don’t believe they are not happy here and that we do not pay them.
‘They make lots of money. Look in their huts. We treat them very well,’ he shouted. ‘Just ask them.’
We did. All said they wanted to leave immediately.
The Karen committee and Thai officials had to leave the camp with the arrival of Tourist Police friendly to the owner, and after the scarcely veiled threat of having their pictures taken by Nakluang’s camp guards.
Zaw Thet said: ‘Only public opinion and good Thai citizens can help our people now. The Padaung are not animals, but proud people with fierce traditions. This is a mockery of them.’
Andrew Drumrnond has spent a considerable time on the Thai-Burma border reporting on the ethnic rebels’ fight for survival. He has reported on the Karens’ 50-year war for BBC2’s Everyman, and on Khun Sa, the opium warlord, for the ITV network.
The Times Nov 22 1997