A Cambodian woman in Thailand who procured underage women for brothels in Malaysia has been convicted of human trafficking by a Thai court, a verdict hailed as a breakthrough in Asia's uphill struggle against the practice.
The woman, Mrs. Khunthea, was jailed two weeks ago for 50 years for trafficking eight Cambodian women who said they were offered jobs selling clothes and noodles in Bangkok. Instead, they were sold into brothels in Malaysia, where they were later detained by police for illegal entry.
UN officials who facilitated the case said it involved extensive cross-border cooperation between prosecutors, police, and other state agencies. In the past, similar investigations have run aground over conflicting national laws and definitions of trafficking victims. Many Asian countries deem those who enter illegally as criminals, whatever their circumstance.
In the past, few trafficking cases here have resulted in convictions or tough sentences. But officials hope international pressure to curb the practice is finally beginning to show results.
"I think prosecutors and judges are beginning to sit up and take notice of trafficking crimes," says a Western diplomat. The sentence handed down to the Cambodian trafficker "was far longer than anything we've seen before in trafficking cases in Thailand."
Thailand has become the crossroads for an illicit trade that campaigners call a form of modern-day slavery. Every year tens of thousands of young men and women are sold into servitude in Southeast Asia, not only in the sex industry but also in manual and domestic labor. Traffickers prey on the ignorance of rural communities in Cambodia, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar), where migrant work is seen as a chance to escape poverty and conflict.
Last year, in its annual report on trafficking, the State Department of the United States criticized Thailand for failing to crack down on the trade. Thai officials say they have stepped up their investigations in recent years and as a result broken up dozens of criminal networks that operate across the region's porous borders. A 2003 accord signed by Thailand and Cambodia gives prosecutors greater leeway in joint investigations.
Part of the difficulty in making such investigations stick is the proof needed for conviction, they say. "In the case of international trafficking, if the victims return to their country or are too scared to come and appear before the court, it's very difficult to punish wrongdoing," says Gen. Amnuai Pethsiri, director of Thailand's police child protection unit.
The eight female victims traveled last year to Bangkok to testify against Khunthea and to identify the house where she kept them before they were sent to Malaysia. All of the women have since returned to their communities and found new employment, said Panadda Changmanee, coordinator for the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.
Their stories were typical of many sold into servitude. A local agent told the families their daughters would earn $75 a month working across the border in Thailand. But their final destination was a karaoke bar in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where they were forced into prostitution.
Their ordeal didn't end with their rescue from the karaoke bar. After being deported, several went missing in Thailand and were trafficked again by the same criminal gang. One girl who contacted her family in Cambodia was later rescued by Thai police from a brothel on the Thai-Malaysian border.
UN officials say it's not uncommon for victims to be trafficked more than once, particularly when authorities deport them to their home countries without providing adequate protection. Police in Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia are now looking for eight other traffickers in the same network. "This is just the beginning. It's not the end. The girls might be needed again for testimony," says Panadda.