Ranong Rescue

KimGooi Photojournalist     [all photographs copyright © Kim Gooi] Story and Photo Published in: Time Magazine July 1993

Ranong July 4, 1993 : –  Old timers in Penang would always think fondly of Ranong, the border town north of Phuket facing Burma’s Victoria Point. It is the birthplace of Khaw Sim Bee (Phya Rasada Nupradit), better known as the Raja of Ranong, who ruled the five southern coastal provinces right up to Trang a century ago. Ranong ground is also the prime real estate donated by Khaw to the people of Penang as a recreation park where Dewan Sri Pinang stands today.

Apart from having probably the biggest Chinese graveyard (housing the remains of the Khaw Sim Bee clan) in the region, Ranong is today the base for Thailand’s huge fishing fleet employing thousands of Burmese crew. It can also boast of having the most Burmese prostitutes in the world.

However, what dissident Burmese student, Aung Zaw (editor of Irrawaddy magazine), saw was most shocking; hundreds of Burmese girls kept as sex slaves in tiny cubicles surrounded by high walls and guarded by criminal pimps. Guards at the steel door frisked customers entering the brothel.

Each of the tiny cubicles contained a cement bunk with a thin mattress where the girls were forced to entertain clients. Hidden doors concealed by pin-up posters led to secret passageways where the girls could be hidden during poilce raid.

The Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CPCR), an NGO in Bangkok and the Tourist Poilce were alerted by Aung Zaw. It was 1993 and prime minister Chuan Leekpai declared eradication of child prostitution as the cornerstone of his new government. Thai NGOs and social welfare organisations were ecstatic.

On July 4, special police teams and commandos drove from Bangkok to Ranong all night in a well-planned lightning raid on the notorious brothels named Vida, Victoria and Sonthaya. Ranong police and residents watched in awe as the police and commandos smashed through the well fortified dens owned by a local big shot named Pinai Nakaew, an ex police corporal.

Infiltrators led by CPCR officials and Aung Zaw had earlier entered the brothels at 7.30 pm. posing as customers. They were followed minutes later by police undercover agents poised to secure the premises when the police launched the raids at 8.10 pm.

Alas, the brothel was alerted when one journalist vehicle which missed an ealier rendezvous, got lost and arrived a few minutes before the police. Lights were suddenly switched off, plunging the area into darkness and the steel door slammed shut.

Pandemonium and mass hysteria broke out among the girls cowering in fear as the commandos smashed down the steel door with sledge hammers and crowbars. They charged in with M16s, kicking down a few pimps, furious that they had put up such resistance.

“The stench of the place was terrible. there were no proper toilets. It was a hell hole,” said Theerapol, head of CPCR. Several fo the girls were found to be pregnant, and two were found with newborn babies. Some had cane marks and bruises on their buttocks and thighs where they had been severely beaten. Forty-two of the girls were between ages of 15 and 18.

Police and CPCR officials found another 20-year-old girl near death in Ranong Hospital after pimps beat her when she was three months pregnant. Altogether 144 Burmese girls and 9 pimps (2 Thais and 7 Burmese) were arrested. The girls were brought to Ranong Police Station and lock-upped in two tiny cells.

“The Burmese girls will be charged in Ranong district court for illegal entry and prostitution,” said police Colonel Boonyarit Rattaporn,” the commanding officer of the raid.

CPCR officials fought in vain for custody of the girls. “We must bring the girls to Bangkok for the NGOs to take care of them. The girls are in great danger if they are charged and repatriated back to Burma,” said Theerapol.

The girls were victimized in the first place by being tricked and forced into prostitution, and now they are being victimized again by being charged and locked up in cells worse than the brothels where they were imprisoned, he said.

From One Hell Hole to Another

I visited the police station the next day with a TV crew and was shocked to see 144 girls crammed into two open cells like an animal cage with bars on four sides. There were hardly any room to sit let alone sleep. It was filthy, hot and humid. Many of the girls were reduced to wearing bras and underpants to escape the suffocating heat.

The condition of the girls had turned the spectacular raid into a horrible farce, earning Thailand more ignominy abroad.

“The CPCR has 20 million baht, 90 percent donated by Thais. We will take care of the girls if no other NGOs would,” said the children’s rights campaigner.

Aung San Su Kyi, Burma’s dissident and pro democracy leader who had just won the Nobel Laureate, had donated a lump sum of her prize money to Dr. Saisuree of the prime minister Woman Affairs Department for such eventuality, he added.

Theerapol charged that most of the girls had been lured into prostitution by Burmese pimps on the promise that they would be offered good jobs in Ranong.

“We were sold for 5,000 baht each, fed two meals a day and never paid any money,” said Tin Tin, 15, in tears. “If we complained and refuse to sleep with customers, they beat us up.”

The height of irony was that the immigration department is situated just behind the brothels and had not bothered to check on the girls. If they had done their job, many of the girls would have been saved when they were first brought over the border illegally.

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