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A notorious human trafficking ring was busted in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province, following reports of murder, rape and extortion of vulnerable Burmese migrant workers.
Thai authorities arrested the gang members following two years of investigations by Burmese advocacy group Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT).
Six members of the ring, including the leader identified as Thein Zaw, a 45-year-old native of Mon State, were detained following raids at the Vita Food Factory, as well as his home. Thai police and military personnel were accompanied by the Burmese embassy and MAT staff in a joint-partnership operation.
“Combined forces of Thai officials from the Department of Special Investigations, local police, immigration and military personnel, were accompanied by a team of Burmese officials raided the Vita Food Factory in Kanchanaburi and arrested the human trafficking ring leader Thein Zaw and five other members,” said Kyaw Thaung, director of MAT.
“The ringleader and two members were first arrested at the factory on Monday, 5 October, and on Tuesday the authorities raided his home, arresting three more.”
Thein Zaw’s group is believed to be the biggest Burmese trafficking ring in central Thailand, and is now in custody at a Kanchanaburi detention centre.
Kyaw Thein said according to the MAT investigation, Thein Zaw arrived in Thailand more than 10 years ago and was employed at the Vita Food fruit factory.
After arranging the smuggling of Burmese migrants into factory jobs in Thailand, he allegedly began systematically skimming their wages.
The ring is also accused of torturing and murdering migrants who challenged the wage skimming, and of raping female migrants.
In the last two years, the MAT received more than 20 reports filed by migrants against the ring – including seven allegations of murder, 10 rape cases, and dozens of instances of assault and battery.
After receiving the reports, MAT conducted an investigation using hidden cameras and informants from inside the ring. One informant was reportedly sent to a Thai prison after Thein Zaw and his men planted drugs on him in retribution.
MAT claims that once Thein Zaw learnt of their investigation, which they codenamed ‘DOWN’, the ringleader issued bounties of some 2 million baht (US$55,600) on both Kyaw Thaung, and Saw Naung, the latter who acted as a key informant in the case.
“I used to live in the [Kanchanaburi] area, also working part-time as a pastor – but I have been hiding at the MAT office in Bangkok for four months, fearing for my safety after Thein Zaw’s gang issued bounties on my head and U Kyaw Thaung’s,” Saw Naung told MAT, in a report published on their website.
“One of my assistants is now in jail – it’s no exaggeration when I say we had risked our lives for the investigation.”
He added that a migrant named Ko Phyo spent nine days in hospital after members of the gang beat him. Several female migrants who were allegedly raped returned to Burma to flee the subsequent stigma within their community, he said, adding that despite being notified, local authorities failed to act because they were on good terms with the trafficking ring.
During Tuesday’s raid on Thein Zaw’s home, officials reportedly seized financial records; a list of names of migrants who had been trafficked by the ring; and labour ID cards withheld from migrant workers.
A further 10 trafficking victims were rescued from the house, and are expected to face immigration charges, having entered Thailand illegally.