January 7 2012
GREY MAN AND THE AKHAS
The village of Baan Khun Suay in Northern Thailand is populated by people of the Akha Hill tribe. They earn a living from farming rice, tea, and coffee, and are poor but self-subsistent.
But as we reported three months ago they hit the headlines when ‘The Grey Man’, an Australian registered charity which boasts it comprises ex-Special Forces men and police officers, announced that its ‘operatives’ had rescued 21 children – 13 boys and 8 girls – and saved them from certain slavery and sexual exploitation.
In its press release ‘The Grey Man’ said: ‘Most of the girls and some of the boys would have ended up in the sex industry in Bangkok and Pattaya.
‘Without our help the rest would have been most likely trafficked for labour in sweatshops. Now they have a chance.’
John Curtis also claimed that one of the girls, aged 13, had also escaped from a brothel and been taken to a police station where she was held for two days and raped by a police officer before being returned to the brothel.and added that he had videos of the traffickers fleeing the scene.
‘We did manage to get video footage of the traffickers and we’ll go back afterwards,’ he told readers.
But this week he said he had not seen the video yet and controversy surrounds this extraordinary rescue, which involved pretty much all the early teens in the village community.
Accompanying ‘The Grey Man’s story on their website of the ‘rescue’ on October 6th last year was a picture showing eighteen of the allegedly rescued children looking serious and posing for pictures with three ‘grey men’.
The children, saidThe Grey Man, were now thanks to them in safe keeping and the plan was to get them to school as soon as possible.
The children’s eyes were covered in black patches but three ‘grey men’ had much bigger patches covering their whole heads indicating to readers the ‘undercover’ roles they undertake.
Indeed they claim they work in the utmost secrecy and even run martial arts and ‘bush’ survival programmes for their ‘operatives’ and the charity has featured on ABC’s ‘Australian Story’.
But our investigation shows that not only were these very same children never taken to safe housing, they were going to school as they normally do.
Their uniforms, books, and lunches were being paid for out of a Thai Government fund for disadvantaged children.
Nevertheless by October 15th after just four days ‘The Grey Man’ announced that it had raised half the money they needed claiming that the children were being looked after in a safe house.
‘4 days in to out 2 week appeal and we’ve raised half the money we need – we still need another$1000 to go towards the 21 kids we just rescued. Unlike other charities, the money is not pooled into village projects. Your donations will go straight to those kids and their education and care,’ said The Grey Man blurb.
But then suddenly a week later on October 21st the rescue story totally disappeared from ‘The Grey Man’ site and Facebook.
John Curtis had been in email correspondence with Ben Svasti Thomson, a director of Trafcord – The trafficking co-ordination unit of northern Thailand – who said that the ‘Grey Man’ rescue seemed like one of the biggest ever and that Trafcord was eager to get involved particularly as there was a policeman accused of rape who could escape punishment unless the case was monitored by honest Thai officials.
But this fledgling relationship turned sour quickly.
John Curtis first wrote to Trafcord on October 19th saying that that Ben Svasti Thomson may have read reports of the rescue in the Australian press but the Grey Man had had no time to inform either the Thai police or Trafcord before the rescue which was done by a team which ‘was only supposed to gathering intelligence’.
On October 18th Ben Svasti Thomson said he replied in a congratulatory way saying Trafcord would like to get involved to help provide protection for the children and to pursue a legal case against the traffickers and in particular the policeman.
Curtis replied: ‘The kids are being interviewed at the moment but there is serious concern that if we involve the police at this stage the informant network will close up and destroy and awful lot of work.’
The Grey Man story was plausible.
Thai police have in the past been accused of raping victims of trafficking and have been known to co-operate with brothel owners. But Trafcord have been very successful against child trafficking in Thailand where they have been involved in major prosecutions of brothel owners and foreign paedophiles, particularly.
But there was no interviewing going on, at least not by anyone qualified to deal with children in abuse situations, because there is no evidence the children were ever in a safe house.
Out of the blue, on October 22 Curtis wrote to Trafcord saying: ‘I wrote to our Director of Operations in Australia and it seems that we were misreported in the Australian press that we rescued those kids. Embarrassing for us and I have pulled the story off the net. It must have been one of the other groups up there.’
This was not true. The Grey Man organization had in fact put out their own press statement and the story was covered by AAP, the Australian, the West Australian, the Brisbane Times and picked up by a variety of websites.
Meanwhile Trafcord had done their own investigations and had confirmed that three grey men, had on two different occasions visited Baan Khun Suay, together with an unregistered American charity called COSA – Children of South East Asia.
They had gathered a group of children together posed with them for a picture, and then returned to photograph individually for the charity’s records and to show they were providing medical assistance and transport to school.
Trafcord reported its findings to the Co-ordination Centre for the Protection of Women and Children’s Rights’ who issued a statement on December 7th saying that the rescue was a scam.
‘A thorough investigation by Thai government and non-government agencies has revealed that no such rescue mission ever took place. Extensive interviews of the children themselves, their teachers and village leaders took place and no verification could be provided of any human trafficking incident.
‘Indeed all the children are happily at home with their parents; they never left their homes. All that happened is that several Westerners came into the village and asked to take pictures of poor children in order to find assistance for transport to school.
‘Needless to say the village community and the children themselves are very upset at having been represented as a village providing sex workers.
‘The Coordination Centre for Protection of Child and Women Rights feels it is very wrong to exploit Thai children and the Australian public in this way to solicit funds on false premises. We feel the funds raised by the generosity of the Australian people in response to this hoax rescue mission should be immediately returned and the Australian media should correct their false reports.’
Curtis reacted in anger and issued threats to Trafcord now saying the rescue HAD taken place after all. His supporters he said were getting emails from Trafcord saying that the rescue was a scam.
‘We will speak to the US Embassy about your activities and funding’
On December 12 he wrote: ‘I would appreciate it if you would stop sending these scam messages to our supporters.
‘I understand why you might think it is a scam because I could not tell you the whole story. However if it continues we will target your Facebook page and those of your supporters. We have thousands of supporters and you cannot block all of them.
‘We will also speak to our contact at the US Embassy about your activities and funding. As I said we have photographs and details of all the children (there are 22 not 21)
‘The boys (14 of them) have been in the hands of a foreign n.g.o. and girls are in sponsored education sponsored by the money you seem to think is a scam.
‘We don’t make things up unless we need to protect the children. All these children would be in brothels in the south if we were not there.’
Meanwhile readers of the Grey Man Facebook page had been getting regular updates at what was happening to the children still allegedly being held in a secret location.
Faced with this massive clash of stories I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and picked up on the way Duan Wongsa, Director of Trafcord who had asked me to take a look at the two accounts.
Baan Khun Suay is a four an half hour 4×4 journey from Chiang Mai, the last hour on a pitted and rutted dust track.
Immediately on arrival it was clear there was no need for an interpreter. Not only did they speak Akha, all also spoke Thai except for the very elderly. Ninety five per cent had Thai ID cards and outside every second house there was a television satellite disk.
While the area was a little remote it was comparatively prosperous for a hill tribe village. They had their own primary school, church, and the community farmed rice, fruit, coffee and tea both Oolong Chinese tea, and Assam Indian tea. The local district is called Wawee, and Wawee coffee shops can be found throughout Thailand selling their produce.
When I asked where the trafficked children were – it was a school holiday – all but one, who posed for a picture for ‘The Grey Man’ appeared within half an hour, many arriving on step through motorcycles. The missing person was a Muser from another community.
We reconstructed ‘The Grey Man’ picture outside the house of farmer Jaimuk Laisai who said: ‘The three foreigners came to the village with Mickey from COSA.
(Left:Mickey Chootesa, is an American Thai national who runs ‘Children of South East Asia’. He runs what the Grey Man described as their shelter for ‘abused and at risk’ children in Mae Rim, near Chiang Mai.)
‘They said they wanted to help kids in the village and asked what sort of help we needed. We said the kids needed help with the school and healthcare.
‘There was no talk about prostitution at all.’
Village headman Suwan Yupoh said: ‘The impact of this press attention has been bad. People have the image that we send out our children to sell sex.
‘We have been used. This is all not true. The children are all here in the village. They have never left. Everyone enjoys there life here. We have asked all the agencies concerned to stop these bad things happening. Other people are exploiting our children.’
And the children themselves seemed upset too, but perhaps more about the taunts of ‘prostitute’ given by children from neighbouring villages.
Said 14-year-old Phet: ‘I feel bad that people think there is human trafficking here which is not true. I want to tell them it is not happening.’
At the time of the ‘rescue’ we checked at the school in the neighbouring village of Baan Pong Klang Nam too because they were travelling to and from the school each week and boarding.
They were staying at a school boarding house and these are always vulnerable and law dictates that a teacher should be on the premises at all times.
But again both the school authorities and the children maintained there had been no attempts to enter the premises and if so, why did they not report the matter to their parents or teachers?
I also visited the ‘secret’ COSA shelter, called Baan You Suk, in Mae Rim, where Mr. Chootesa confirmed that he had supplied pictures of the children to ‘The Grey Man’.
He also admitted that they were taken to confirm which children were being given, medical assistance, school meals, and transfers to and from school.
At the time of the visit there were no children at the shelter. They had all gone home to celebrate the tea festival in Wawee.
‘You should talk to the Grey Man, not us,’ he said. ‘I can talk about our work. I cannot talk about this case. We receive assistance from The Grey Man.
“As far as the trafficking matter is concerned let the law take its place, but we have been questioned by police and they say the enquiry is now concluded.’
But on Thailand’s Channel 7 TV Mickey told an absolute whopper perhaps believing nobody would pick up on it: ‘Australian journalists had ‘confiscated’ his pictures,’ he said, ‘and had written things to damage his name.
Trafcord Director Duan Wongsa said: ‘All the children have been interviewed by social workers who are trained to pick up on things and who are alert to the possibility of child trafficking. There was not a single child reporting any evidence of child trafficking or attempt at child trafficking.’
And Trafcord Executive Director Ben Svasti Thomson, incidentally also the British Honorary Consul in Chiang Mai added: ‘I think it’s unfortunate because human trafficking is still a problem in northern Thailand and we still need a lot of help from international agencies but it does not help one little bit when one agency starts to misrepresent the facts and raise funds on false premises.’
The trafficking of children, while still a problem has been considerably greatly reduced in the last ten years, due to public awareness and close monitoring.
Very few trafficked children enter the western tourist sex trade but they have been found in brothels on the Malaysian border and Trafcord itself has uncovered and brought prosecutions against the owners of a brothel in Petchaburi province which employed trafficked Laotian woman, and uncovered a ring supplying hill tribe boys to foreign paedophiles in Chiang Mai including former British ‘Freightliners’ boss Briton Roger Pettit.
Rossukhon Tariya (right), from Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security said that the Grey Man incident was now being investigated under the Child Protection and Computer Crimes Acts.
And indeed on Friday afternoon the Department of Special Investigations, met with members of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Thai Government Committee on Trafficking, Region 5 Police, and Trafcord.
They called in officers of the Australian Federal Police and said they would like an investigation in Australia. They were then told by the AFP officers that they should put their request in writing.
The Grey Man, of course, has a relationship with the AFP both in Australia in Thailand, but that relationship is unofficial and AFP are unlikely to go on the record.
The AFP are pro-active and their activities do not seem to clash with the activities of ‘The Grey Man’.
And COSA would have to register as a charity in Thailand if it wanted to continue working, and thus be subject to various checks and balances.
But the future for ‘The Grey Man’ in South East Asia seems limited unless they can now find someone to trust in Thailand and who trusts them. They claim they work closely with Thai police and foreign police agencies, and that has been true with individual police agencies and even charities in the past, but now they are subject of both a DSI investigation and a Thai media frenzy .
Publicity in the vernacular Thai press has been quite outrageous and bordering on racist. The Thai press and television has accused ‘foreign gangs’ of faking the rescue to stuff their own pockets with cash. The Grey Men were even accused of being the traffickers.
In fact ‘The Grey Men’ dig into their own pockets to fund their trips and activities in South East Asia.
When I caught up with Grey Man President John Curtis he said: ‘We are not in the business of lying.’
He said the children in the village were being intimidated by the authorities and that there was antagonism from other non-government organisations and police because ‘Grey Man’ was doing the job they were supposed to be doing.
The Thai officials, community leaders and charities were involved in a ‘face saving’ gesture.
‘You know how it works in Thailand.’ He said in the interests of the children, I should go with my suggestion that this was a press release which went disastrously wrong.’
He said that he would be taking Margaret McMurdo, The Grey Man’s Patron and Chief Justice of the Queensland Court of Appeal, to visit the children later in the year and perhaps he could show me too, so that The Grey Man could be vindicated.
‘We acted on information which prevented those children being trafficked.’
Again, there is no suggestion that members of ‘The Grey Man’ have been lining their own profits. Indeed the community in Wawee district has been gratefully benefiting from cash sent from Australia, which helps with transport to school and medicines.
The way ‘The Grey Man’ presents its information using military and police jargon, talking about lines of communication, operatives, informant networks, and stories it puts out of attacks by men with Molotov cocktails, and bullets ricocheting of cars in high speed chases, has raised a few eye-brows.
On behalf or organisations in Thailand I myself have gone into brothels and massage parlours to bring out under aged girls. I am careful about it, but have never seen it as a real risk and don’t normally expect to be petrol bombed or shot at.
And an operation in Pattaya in which Mickey Chootesa and ‘The Grey Man’ rescued a 14-yr-old bar girl sounds like many foreigners experience when they first come across young girls in the Thai sex trade.
Having rescued the girl, says The Grey Man, her mum put in demands for compensation and more.
‘Mo was so disgusted with her family when she he realized that they had no interest in her education and that she was simply a commodity to them. She wanted to go with us to the police station to sign the paperwork to have her legally places under the protection of COSA and social workers.’
I do not know if that happened but it’s thoroughly illegal without the consent of the parents and had it taken place then those responsible could be jailed.
And of course COSA is not registered in Thailand and employs volunteers.
Trafcord is now concerned that during their investigations ‘The Grey Man’ may indeed have come across a young girl who was raped by a policeman, and while they do not believe she is part of the Baan Khun Suay group, they are anxious to investigate.’
Said Ben Svasti Thomson: ‘If ‘The Grey Man’ does not trust then they can go to a higher authority which will do its utmost to gain a prosecution. This sort of thing has happened before.
‘But this is Thailand and whatever they think of them, they will really need to contact the authorities here if they want to get real results.’
Andrew Drummond, a former South East Asia correspondent for the Observer and London Times, has exposed several foreign paedophiles in Asia and he tracked down former pop star Gary Glitter, Paul Gadd, in Vung Tau, Vietnam, leading to his arrest and trial there for offences against young children.