BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – "Do you have passports?"
The Thai man identified himself as a policeman, but apart from a police jacket, he wore civilian clothes. Two more men waited nearby, next to a truck with tinted windows. They all reeked of alcohol.
Nyo and her friends thought they were being stopped for a routine document check there on the grounds of a monastery near Bangkok. Moments later, the men bundled them into the truck, and they were fighting for their lives.
The four migrant workers from Myanmar had just finished their factory shift. Unlike the estimated two million Burmese workers who are here illegally, they have official paperwork, but that didn’t help them.
Burmese migrants are used to random searches by Thai police who prey on migrants for easy bribes. However for Nyo and her friends, a shakedown became an assault – an abusive routine that rights workers describe as “systematic and prevalent.”
Nyo ended up sitting next to the driver, the man in the police jacket. Her friends - a young woman and a couple - sat behind her. There was a walkie-talkie and a pair of handcuffs.
They were imprisoned in a truck for two hours in a remote area of Mahachai, a town outside Bangkok where Burmese migrants labour in numerous factories and markets.
They were not allowed outside the truck. The men demanded money, hit them when they refused to give more and took their jewelry.
Then they started to molest them.
“They touched the 17-year-old’s chest and put their hands inside the clothes of the married girl in front of her husband. They were also starting to undo the zip of my trousers,” recalled Nyo, which is not her real name. The driver of the truck forced a small white pill down the throat of the young girl, she said.
“Nobody would have known if they had raped, killed and dumped us by the side of the road.”
BANK ACCOUNT PLUNDERED
They had been driven to a quiet road where there was nothing but tall grass. The men took their passports and the sole mobile phone they had, and hit them when they refused to pay 5,000 baht ($167) each to be released.
Then they found Nyo’s bankcard. Nyo and her husband had been saving money to go home and see their three children in central Myanmar, so she was desperate to keep the 19,000 baht ($630) in her bank account.
She relented when she could take no more of the physical abuse.
“By then my face was swollen and my eyes were red from injury,” Nyo said.
The men’s first try with her card at the ATM machine did not work, and then the sexual assault began.
The men allowed Nyo to contact her husband, who speaks Thai and persuaded the man in the police jacket to go to another ATM.
“I was in tears seeing them share my money,” she said.
The men gave them 100 baht ($3.30) to go home. Still scared but relieved and exhausted, they finally reached home three hours after being taken captive.
It could have turned out even worse, they later found out.
A similar case of kidnapping occurred two days earlier, said Aye Mar Cho, officer-in-charge at the Mahachai office of the Human Rights & Development Foundation, which works with migrant workers.
Three female Burmese migrant workers who had completed their early morning shift were snatched by three men, taken to a bungalow and put in separate rooms. One girl managed to run away in her underwear, said Aye Mar Cho.
“When the other two returned, they would not talk to aid workers or police. They quit their jobs and went back home” to Myanmar, she said.
Andy Hall, a migration expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok, told TrustLaw that extortion and abuse of migrant workers by law enforcement officials and people claiming to be law enforcement officials is systematic and prevalent, particularly in areas with high concentrations of non-Thai nationals.
“It’s almost impossible for a powerless migrant worker to gain access to justice unless their case is heavily publicised and they are backed up by influential persons or law enforcement officials themselves,” he said.
A 2012 report by the International Commission of Jurists and Justice for Peace Foundation found that migrant women and Burmese women in refugee camps are among those who face serious barriers to get any kind of justice or legal protection in Thailand.
Nyo and her colleagues did open a criminal case, but the others became scared and decided to give up.
“They were worried that even if we won, we would be killed,” she said.
Nyo later met someone who showed her a picture of a man, whom she recognised as the driver - the man with the police jacket.
“But there was a woman at the meeting who spoke Burmese who said, ‘Be careful what you say, this is a policeman. Even if he's the right person, don't go around complaining just for 20,000 baht. If you want to stay in Thailand and make a living for a while, there are lots of people who work under him that could come and kill you.’
“So I got scared, too,” she said. She has not pursued the case since.