The Burmese embassy in Bangkok has pledged to provide medical and legal assistance to a 12-year-old Karen girl, who was allegedly kidnapped, tortured and kept as a household slave for over five years by a Thai couple living near the border in north-western Thailand.
“We are treating this case as a priority and are going to assign a [delegation] led by an official to deliver cash for medical expenses and welfare and to send a letter to the Thai government urging for immediate legal actions,” said Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, labour attaché of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok.
Images of the young girl’s severely burned body circulating in the media have shocked the country and raised fresh questions over the mistreatment of Burmese migrants in Thailand. The girl, identified only as “Air”, was allegedly kidnapped as a seven-year-old, when here parents – illegal migrants from neighbouring Burma – were working in the sugarcane fields in Amphur Meuang, Kamphaengphet province, in north-western Thailand.
She was allegedly forced to work as the couple’s slave and subjected to gruesome torture if she failed to comply, including being drenched in boiling hot water, while locked up in a dog cage. She told police that her captors cut off a tip of her ear when she first tried to escape.
“Once I tried to escape about three years ago. But there was someone who sent me to the police, and the police took me back to the house owners again,” she told police. “My running away made them so much angry, they hit my head against the wall, and used a shoe to slap at my face, and used the scissors to cut at my ears for punishment.”
Questions remain over why the girl was brought back to her alleged captors, rather than her parents, after her first attempt to flee. The girl eventually escaped on 31 January after chasing the household’s pet cat, which had slunk through the fence of her captors’ house. According to doctors at the Kamphaengphet hospital, 50 percent of her skin has been seriously burned, subsequently fusing her left arm to the side of her torso, and she required immediate surgery.
“We are also discussing with lawyers about pressing more charges [against the suspects] under Thai law,” said Kyaw Kyaw Lwin.
The couple currently faces seven charges, including slavery, torture, forced labour and child trafficking. The couple, who have denied the charges, initially told the police that the girl “accidentally” burned herself with hot water. They will have to testify ahead of the Department of Special Investigation on 18 February.
But according to media reports, the Thai couple – identified as 35-year-old Nathee Taeng-orn and 33-year Rattanakorn Piyavoratharm – have “influential” connections. Mr Thanawat Sathit, who runs the Kamphaengphet Children and Families Shelter where the young girl is being cared for, has admitted to reporters that he is “afraid” justice may not be done. The Burmese delegation is set to travel to the shelter to meet the young girl and thank the organisation for their work.
The treatment of migrant workers in Thailand has been a source of controversy for many years, drawing regular criticism from human rights groups. Up to three million migrants in Thailand, or about 80 percent, are estimated to come from Burma, and often occupy a quasi-legal existence that leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.