It started with a single photo in which a woman smiles wanly before five men held like animals behind corroded bars.
“Smile everyone…” read the caption to the March 22 image uploaded to Facebook by television reporter Thapanee Eadsrichai, uploaded just a few hours after she discovered the Thai fishermen enslaved and illegally imprisoned.
Their reason for appearing in the photo was simple – they wanted the world to know they existed as more than statistics in another to-be-ignored report on human slavery in the fishing industry.
“They wanted me to take a photo with them because they want everyone to know that they’re in there,” Thapanee said before asking rhetorically, “Who’s the judge for this prison? Who’s the prosecutor? Where is the court?!”
On March 22, the 37-year-old Songkhla native set out for the island after the release of a yearlong investigative report by the Associated Press confirmed slaves were being held in there. She traveled with Patima Tangprajchayakul of the Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation in Thailand and a translator to Indonesia’s Benjina Island, where she found the Thai men, who said they were jailed for three months for stealing some fish and missing a shift.
Since then, the five survivors, who claimed they were confined in horrid conditions for months while working aboard a fishing boat off the island, have been rescued and are in the care of Indonesian immigration authorities on Tual Island.
Others suffered a worse fate. Not far away a total of 64 Thais were found buried in an empty field. Above their bodies were wooden signs indicating they were from Thailand, but many were not identified by name, and those that were likely relied on fake names from their seaman registration logs.
The men will be returned home to Thailand as early as tomorrow. Their freedom owes in part to Thapanee, whose emotionally compelling report helped press officials to take action. It also earned a rebuke from junta chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who strongly discouraged Thai media from reporting on such issues.
Thapanee also stepped outside traditional lines of reporting to use social media to make a difference.
“Urgent! We found jailed fishing boat workers in Benjina, Indonesia, and a cemetery where several Thais were buried. The Thai workers came to me saying they wanted to be on TV. They wanted to let their family know they’re still alive,” Thapanee wrote on Facebook as soon as she had internet signal that day.
The post spread throughout social media and helped push action by drawing attention to the issue.
Enslaved and imprisoned, Somchai Chamchoi poses for an image he hopes will secure his freedom. Photo: Thapanee Letsrichai
“I miss my mom. I hope this time I really get to go home,” slave-worker Chairat Ratchapaksi said.
The men told Thapanee they’d gotten a letter sent to the Thai Embassy in Jakarta in February, which was apparently ignored. Three hours after Thapanee posted to Facebook about the men, she was notified by the same embassy in Jakarta that they were aware of the report and preparing to take action.
Chairat was discovered by Thanapanee along with the four other Thai slaves at the port of Pusaka Benjina Resources, a joint-operation between Thai and Indonesian investors. The men had been jailed in the company’s security building for three months for stealing fish and missing their shift.
“I have to gather my courage. I don’t know if telling the truth will put me in danger. Will I die and become an unknown corpse like other Thais who died just recently?” Chairat spoke, alluding to the cemetery where other dead Thai slaves were believed to be buried.
A manager, who was not named, said the company only jails their workers two days at a time and the deceased’s family has been informed of their death and received compensation.
Chairat along with the four others should be back in Thailand by Thursday along with about 50 other Thais on Benjina Island also being processed for repatriation home.
Shooting the Messenger
It was work in the best tradition of journalism: Reporter shines light on problem with cold, hard truth, and by doing so helps solve long, tangled problem.
However for her trouble, Thapanee incurred the wrath of authorities eager to assure the international community it has dealt with the problem. Only last year did the United States drop Thailand to Tier 3 status along with Syria, Iran and North Korea in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, while Europe has mulled an economically damaging ban on Thai imports.
After her report aired, Prayuth placed the blame on reporters for telling the truth instead of the criminals who profit from trafficking and slavery.
“Some news report are threats to the stability of the country,” Prayuth told the press regarding Thapanee’s slavery report two days later on March 25. “Do they know what’s going to happen after they publicized the report? Human trafficking will come to the light, and if they don’t buy all the 200,000 million tons of fish, the reporters have to take responsibility.”
Meanwhile the Thai government has taken steps in response to the reporting.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in contact with the Indonesian government while Ministry of Social Development and Human Security has sent officers to help out the Thai workers.
While the five workers are being rescued from Benjina island, 421 others on nearby Ambon island have also asked to go home.
On a global level, the AP report on fishing boat slavery has led the Indonesian government to investigate and reportedly led to the rescue of hundreds of workers, mostly from Burma and Cambodia.
Subscribe to The Coconuts Podcast for top trending news and pop culture from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong every Friday!