Eye Witness to Trafficking

In a spontaneous, late-night decision, the travel group splintered off and decided on another plan.  Three of us went to Burma and the other three (including me) went to Bangkok.  We took a first-class 12-hour bus from Mae Sai and it didn’t take long to notice some strange shit was going on around us.  At our first stop in Chiang Rai, I jumped off for a leg stretch and noticed several medium-sized boxes being pulled out of the undercarriage.  Then I saw our bus driver’s assistant covertly hand a policeman a wad of Thai baht.  Bribing the police is common around here; I just had never seen it with my own eyes.

Then I noticed we were stopping at irregular places.  I’ve taken this bus ride many times and I’m familiar with the route.  The bus driver’s assistant would hop out, pull some stuff out of the undercarriage and pass it off to a drive-by motorbike.  Sometimes we would linger around clearly waiting for someone to arrive.  At one point, the bus crew stalled and distracted the passengers by buying food.  Men showed up, a verbal exchanged ensued, the bus took off, and a motorbike drove along side us, throwing packages onto the moving bus.  The co-pilot was in and out of the bus.  We discovered he was often riding in the undercarriage presumably preparing the packages to be passed off.

I figured the bus crew was trafficking drugs and paying off the cops along the way.  In northern Thailand you have to travel through several police check-points before getting safely out of Chiang Mai province.  The random stops continued, the assistant would disappear and then reappear.  The police came onto the bus at one point, asked me for my passport and the bus assistant passed off another roll of cash into the policeman’s hand.  This was blatantly done right in front of my face and was about the fifth exchange of cash I’d witnessed.  It’s unbelievable to me that they wouldn’t try to hide it in some way.  Either they are amateurs or they just don’t give a fuck. I looked around at the mostly Thai passengers on the bus and no one seemed the wiser.  Thais are afraid of the cops and tend to mind their business.

Things became uncomfortable when, at another random stop, a girl got on the bus without  a ticket and without a seat.  She was passed off by a man and woman.  I saw an exchange of money.  She was seated in the front right next to the driver and sat there in stillness on the floor.  She was clearly not a passenger as she was never given water or snacks.  I had the gut feeling that we were not only witnessing the trafficking of opium, methamphetamine and/or heroin but also this young, attractive girl.  The fact that it was happening on public transportation, on a first-class bus, was beyond belief.

When we stopped for a bathroom break, I approached the girl, out of view of the bus crew, and asked her where she was going, what her name was and did she need help.  She did not speak Thai and could only tell me that she was going to “Grangkok.” I couldn’t tell if she was Burmese or Lao but the fact that she couldn’t understand anyone around her was not a good sign. I felt helpless because we couldn’t communicate and I was hesitant to go too far in fear of endangering either of us.

I could give a shit if the bus crew was trafficking drugs but how could I sit on this bus for 12-hours being witness to the trafficking of this young girl who had most likely been promised a lucrative job in the city and was completely unaware of her immediate future.

We proceeded to photograph everyone involved as well as the license plate of the bus and the driver’s registration card.  I gave the girl all my food and tried to make her feel comfortable.  The distressing part was me knowing (or being pretty sure what I knew) and her being completely unaware of what was happening.

After moments of anger, anxiety, uncertainty and helplessness, I decided I would report the motherfuckers and just observe as much as I could so I could pass off as much information as possible to the DSI (Department of Special Investigation) – an independent Thai investigation unit whose mission is:  We serve the public, not the government.

When we finally arrived in Bangkok, I stuck around to see what was going to happen. Was someone going to pick her up?  Was there going to be a trafficking exchange involving more bribes and exchanges of money?Was I completely misinformed and her family would be there to meet her, much to our relief?  Everyone exited the bus, retrieved their bags and proceeded on their way. She stood there with a confused look on her face, uncertain of what to do.  When all the luggage was retrieved, the bus crew motioned her back onto the bus and sped off.  I ran after it to see where it was headed but I couldn’t keep up.  The bus and the girl on it disappeared from view.  My stomach was in knots.  There are times I love Thailand and then there are times I hate it.

The irony of the situation of course is that I couldn’t report any of this to the police.  Their complicity and direct profiteering only ensures their disinterest and apathy.  So I’m reporting it to the DSI but I need a Thai translator to do so because their website and all information about them is in Thai.  I’m finally back in Mae Sai where I can get the help I need to file a claim.  I would rather have reported all this straight way but could not without a native speaker knowledged in such matters.  It’s far from perfect and only makes me feel helpless to protect innocent girls as this continues to go on all around me.  I cringe at the thought of what has happened to that girl in the last three days.  I cannot stand by and do nothing but I can’t expect much to be done either.  In a country were men occupy the power seats and corruption is rampant, I’m beginning to wonder if there is any hope at all for the women and girls here who are treated as commodities.  Perhaps the DSI will surprise me.

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2 thoughts on “Eye Witness to Trafficking

  1. This post embodies the importance to bearing witness and how important it is for us to share the stories of those who touch our lives. Your photographs will serve as a memory that this person lived and they were not another’s property, but a human being.

    Thank you!!

  2. Thanks for continuing to be the eyes and ears for us. I think you need a gun that shoots glitter!

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