BANGKOK — Thai police have arrested a man who admitted to trafficking young Burmese children to sell flowers to foreign tourists in one of Bangkok's most popular tourist locales.
The arrest followed Khaosod English's request to interview the Anti-Human Trafficking Division (AHTD) about children who peddle roses to tourists until 3am every night on Khaosan Road, a notorious watering-hole for backpackers and late-night revelers in downtown Bangkok.
Khaosod English and independent filmmaker Rachel Kessler have been investigating the story of these children for several weeks. Interviews with NGOs, business owners on Khaosan Road, and many of the children have suggested that at least some of them are victims of human trafficking.
This morning, Khaosod English was informed that its inquiry on Wednesday prompted police to investigate the area last night and bring five rose-selling children back to the police headquarters. All five children, ranging from age five to fourteen, are Burmese.
One of the children, a seven-year-old boy, told police he was purchased from his family on the Thai-Burmese border and is living with a caretaker in Bangkok who he referred to as his “boss.”
"From what the child told us, there was a transaction between the parents and the dealer beforehand," said Pol.Col. Chitpop Tomuan, a superintendent of the AHTD.
This morning, police tracked down and arrested the "boss" at a residential building near Khaosan Road, where officers found two more children living in the home. The 22-year-old suspect, who is also Burmese, confessed that he paid the children’s parents 50,000 Burmese kyat ($51.14 USD) for each child, Pol.Col. Chitpop said.
According to Witanapat Rutanavaleepong, the head of the Mirror Foundation’s Stop Child Begging project, hundreds of Burmese children are trafficked from communities along the Thai-Burmese border to sell roses in Bangkok and other popular tourist locations in Thailand. The Mirror Foundation has helped return a number of these children back to their families.
Many Burmese families living illegally in western Thailand’s border towns sell their children out of financial desperation, Mr. Witanapat said. Most of them live in extreme poverty and some have been forced to flee Myanmar to avoid ethnic and religious persecution.
According to Mr. Witanapat, families are approached by middlemen who offer a lump sum to take one of their children to sell roses in Bangkok with promises to send back monthly payments of around 1,500 baht. However, the children on Khaosan Road typically ring in around 1,000 baht per night, selling roses at 20 baht a piece. It is suspected that most of the money goes to their caretakers and traffickers.
Mr. Witanapat cited several cases in which families stopped receiving payments after the first few months and eventually lost contact with their children.
“Most of them start with an agreement of how much money they will they get monthly and when the kid will be back,” said Mr. Witanapat said. “But then it becomes human trafficking because the handlers stop paying the families and refuse to return the child.”
According to Mr. Witanapat, only 20% of children sold into the rose-selling business are ever returned home.
This afternoon, the three children who told police they were purchased from their families were moved to a state-owned children’s shelter while police work on locating their parents.
“In the past several hours they have shown great improvement in their mental condition,” Pol.Col. Chitpop said. "They were frightened at first, but they are improving."
The children, who Khaosod English has spoken to on previous occasions and visited at the police headquarters this morning, appeared cheerful and relaxed.
Police are still questioning the four other children in their custody who claim to be selling roses voluntarily. Pol. Col. Chitpot said he suspects they have been trained to lie about their circumstances.
“They may have been threatened not to share any information,” he said.
Pol. Col. Chitpot said police are trying to contact their families to establish whether or not the children are victims of trafficking, but noted that their parents may be unwilling to step forward if they are living in Thailand illegally.
There are at least eight more Burmese children, who Khaosod English has spoken to, that regularly sell roses on Khaosan Road and are not yet in police custody.
Today’s arrest came as Thailand’s military government scrambles to make up for a year of bad press surrounding the country’s dismal record of combatting human trafficking. Tens of thousands of migrants from neighboring countries are trafficked across Thailand’s borders every year and many of them are forced into slavery or exploited in the sex industry. Recent reports by Reuters and The Guardian have thrust a global spotlight on the tragic fate of many trafficking victims, as well as the complicity of some Thai officials.
On Friday, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest rank in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) for not complying with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. Thailand is now a member of the “Tier 3” category, alongside countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
According to the report, in 2014 Thailand’s “overall anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts remained insufficient compared with the size of the problem in Thailand, and corruption at all levels hampered the success of these efforts.”
Police are expected to hold a press conference about today’s arrest of the trafficking supsect at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the headquarters of the Crime Suppression Division.
“It just feels good to know that these kids are going to go to bed at a normal hour tonight,” said Rachel Kessler, who is filming a documentary about the children who are trafficked to sell roses on Khaosan Road. Ms. Kessler has been researching the story of these children since last October. Her documentary, titled 20 ฿AHT, is scheduled to release in 2015.
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