Over 550 enslaved fisherman have now been found on the Indonesian island of Benjina. Last month an in depth investigation carried out by the Associated Press uncovered a sinister web of human trafficking and forced labour, spanning the Southeast Asian region. Reporters traced slave-caught seafood from Bejina and its surrounding waters to Thailand and on to major US food retailers.
The majority of the trafficked fisherman are Burmese. On Friday DVB’s Peter Aung spoke to one such victim, Thet Swe Tint.
Thet Swe Tint is now on the island of Tual, having been evacuated from Benjina by Indonesian authorities in a dramatic rescue.
DVB: How did you get from Burma to Thailand and how did you come to work as a fisherman?
TST: I am from South-Okkalapa, Rangoon. I first travelled to Thailand through the land border crossing at Myawaddy. After spending one year in Thailand, I went to Indonesia. I left for Indonesia on 26 November 2011. That was the year of the flooding in Bangkok. It was difficult to find work, so I signed up for a fishing boat at Mahachai. It took me to Benjina. At first, I couldn’t work because of the seasickness. I couldn’t work for the entirety of the 15-day voyage, but the captain didn’t punish me. He said that if we felt sick, we were to shower ourselves in seawater and eat some rice, then feel better and get back to work.
DVB: Did all the fisherman join the boats freely?
TST: Some were cheated and sold. But I had never been to Indonesia, I wanted to go there. The company offered all of us loans of 20,000 baht (US$615) when we first joined. I borrowed only 5,000 baht. I didn’t want to take too much; I was worried about what might happen if I couldn’t work to pay it back.
They organised fake Thai passports for us. The documents were forged at a place not far from Mahachai. The boss took my picture and gave me a Thai name and false personal information. The name was Phisanuksonboon. I have never been in possession of the passport.
[pullquote]”A lot of people were kept in cells.” [/pullquote]
DVB: What happened when you arrived in Benjina?
TST: I didn’t like the work. I told them that I wanted to go back when our captain left to bring back a new ship. A new captain arrived. The new captain was full of nonsense. So, I told them I couldn’t work and I left the port. I was waiting at the office hoping I could be sent back. Two or three ships came and went. I couldn’t wait any longer, after five months I joined up to work on another ship. Then, one, and then another, and the time passed, I became older.
DVB: Were you always paid for your work?
TST: When we worked on the ship, we were paid a daily wage. Payments were cleared on return to port. At first I was paid 50,000 Indonesian Rupee (US$3.90) per day. Some captains refused to pay some people. I got paid regularly because I was a good worker. So, they didn’t cheat me completely. But after the first time, they began to pay me less and less.
DVB: There have been reports of torture on the island. Were you or your colleagues harmed in any way?
TST: A lot of people were kept in cells. The captains paid for them to be locked away. I didn’t experience torture or mistreatment personally. Some of my friends did. I heard a lot of awful things. People had problems with their captains. They wouldn’t return us to Thailand. If we had a problem, all we could do would be to find another boat to work on. So, we had to work as we were told, and we had to stay as we were told. Some boats forced men to work, others didn’t. It depended on the captain of the boat. It depended also your nationality. Captains treat their own people well. As we are Burmese we were yelled at when we were sick. They told us they would cut our wages. I had that experience. We were not lazy, but often we couldn’t work because of sickness. So, even when I was sick, I worked for them as much as I could.
DVB: There are reports that some fishermen were cut with knives. Did you see this happening on Benjina?
TST: Some people who became my friends here were hurt like that. There were gangs that carried knives. There were problems between Thais and Burmese as well as Thais and Cambodians. There were problems also between the Burmese. Rakhine [Arakanese] and Burmans, Rakhine and Mons, Mons and Burmans. Usually the fights came after drinking.
Fishermen would drink an alcohol made from coconut juice, it was sour and had a bad smell, but it was their only way to get drunk. Some became addicted and wound up at a place we called the coconut firm, meaning the cemetery. A lot of Burmese and Cambodians died this way. They would be wrapped in canvas and buried. Some captains organised for a wooden coffin.
There was illness as well. Some died after being sick and went to a clinic to be put on a drip. I used to help at the clinic. I once helped a patient who was Burmese. He died at the clinic. His health was beginning to improve; he started to manage to walk. But, somebody from the office told me to help another patient instead. The previous patient was due to go back to sea. He died suddenly that day.
[pullquote]”We met Burmese seamen who had been abandoned on the shore.”[/pullquote]
DVB: How did you get Tual from Benjina?
TST: I have been here at Tual less than one week. Foreigners came to Benjina. They had a Burmese translator with them. I didn’t have a chance to talk to him but we got here with their help. They asked us to separate into groups of those that wanted to leave and those that didn’t. The Indonesian navy also came. They arranged with navy for us to be put into six boats. There were Burmese, Cambodians and Laotians. The majority were Burmese, about 300 of us. When we arrived in Tual, we were brought to a complex with halls and sports facilities, they said it was a navy barracks. They gave us three meals a day and gave us water to drink.
DVB: Is what happened at Benjina continuing on other Indonesian islands?
TST: Yes, it is. On Tual, where we are now, we met Burmese seamen who had been abandoned on the shore. I don’t know how long they were here for before we arrived. There are also Burmese working here as motorbike taxi drivers. There are many Burmese in the villages near Banjina as well. Some make a living by fishing, shrimp fishing or cutting wood in the forest. Two days ago, about 25 Burmese people arrived here from Dobo. They were carrying logs from the forests. They spoke Indonesian very well.
DVB: What do you plan to do now?
Now, the International Organization for Migration is interviewing us one by one. The Burmese embassy has also asked us to fill out forms and has gathered information.
We can now go back to Burma. I just want to return to my mother, if she is still there. I will work in whatever job I can get and stay with my mother until she dies. If my mother is not there or has passed away already, I will not stay. I may go to Thailand and stay there if I can get a real passport.