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	After 2 attacks at sea, the refugees drifted ashore. But their ordeal was not over yet... 

ON ONE BOAT'S 8-DAY TRIP, THE HORROR CAME IN WAVES By Michael Dorgan Mercury News Staff Writer

BAN BUDEE, Thailand -- The 186 people who packed them into a 53-foot fishing boat in Vietnam's Tien Giran province in early December paid roughly $1,635 each to seek a better life. For the price of a luxury cruise, they had purchased an eight-day voyage of hardships and horror. Trouble began in earnest early on the third day, according to a United Nations' report based on interviews with survivors. That is when the last of their engines broke down, leaving the refugees with only the stiff northeasterly monsoons to propel them west.

Later that day they encountered a Thai fishing boat, which they attempted to hire for a tow to Malaysia. They tossed gold rings, necklaces and bracelets into plastic bags that 45-year-old Tran Tu delivered to the fishermen by swimming three times to the Thai boat.


Payment in hand, the fishermen pulled the refugee boat for 100 yards. Then crewmembers cut the towrope and the trawler sped away.

After two more days adrift, the Vietnamese encountered another Thai fishing boat and again tried to negotiate a tow to Malaysia.

This time, they asked that the tow comes first and payment later.

The fishermen said no. Then they rammed the refugee boat once, damaging it slightly, to emphasize that they wanted immediate payment. So Tran Tu again collected a bag of gold jewelry and handed it over. The fishermen towed the refugees a short distances and then, like their predecessors, cut the rope.

But unlike the first fishing boat, the second one did not leave. It apparently radioed for three other fishing boats, which quickly arrived and surrounded the refugees.

About 20 of the fishermen -- armed with axes, knives, hammers and clubs -- boarded the refugee boat and began a brutal search for valuables. One pirate kicked a 60-year-old man so hard that he tumbled overboard. The pirate then turned on a 13-year-old boy and kicked him into the sea. Another 13-year-old boy became so terrified that he leaped into the water to escape the violence. All three drowned.


As some pirates continued to attack the men, knocking six more overboard, others turned on the women. Four women were raped on the refugee boat and another was dragged onto their boats and sailed off.

Three days later, the remaining 176 refugees washed up onto the beach of this small Moslem fishing village about 100 miles north of the Malaysian border.

About midnight, they were attacked by 20 men with guns who stole their few remaining possessions and then spent three hours raping 10 of the women.

Later last month, the survivors were bused to the Phanat Nikhom refugee camp near Bankok, where they await resettlement to another country.

The seven abducted women have disappeared without a trace. So, have the pirates who took them.


Some victims held as sex slaves

SONGKHLA, Thailand -- The worst atrocities committed by pirates on the Gulf of Thailand may never be known. The most pitiful victims probably have been silenced forever.

These are the women who have been abducted and held as sex slaves, either to be passed among fishing boats on the high seas or to be sold to brothels in southern Thailand.

Their number is unknown.

Members of San Jose's Vietnamese Women's Association, which has been collecting money for a campaign to locate missing women, estimate that as many as 3,500 women have been abducted over the past 12 years. And they say many of those women must still be living in bondage.

OWe have no way of knowing how many are still alive,O said spokeswoman Le thi Que-Huong. OBut owe will never rest as along we know our sisters and our mothers are missing in some of corner of the world.O

Anti-piracy officials in Thailand say the groups' estimate - based on information collected by the San Diego-based Boat people SOS Committee - is impossibly large. They say that no more than 1,350 boat refugees are known to have disappeared, and that many of those are men. Few, if any, are likely to have survived, they say.

OWe have absolutely no evidence of Vietnamese women in Thai whorehouse,O said a member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees anti-piracy team in Bangkok.

Several sources in the south of Thailand, off the shores of which most piracy occurs, said there was a flourishing trade in Vietnamese women a few years ago. But they said the fishermen who prey on refugees now find it too risky to bring the women on shore because of increased police vigilance.

OBefore, they not want to kill (the girls and women) because they could make money,O said a Thai man who previously worked in the anti-piracy program. ONow, ... O He shrugged and drew a finger across his throat.

Like many current officials, the former anti-piracy agent agreed to talk only on condition he not be identified. He said he was not only concerned about reprisals from the Thai government, which is extremely sensitive about the piracy issue, but also afraid of the Mafia-like gangs that control much of the prostitution.

Most refugees sold into prostitution were sent to remote areas near the Malaysian border he said, primarily to serve the droves of Malaysian tourists on vacation from austere Moslem lifestyles. But some of the girls and women were kept in Hat Yai, the capital of the south, and in Songkhla, the south's largest fishing port, he said.

Prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, but is nonetheless a major industry. Residents say that Songkhla, a city of 60,000 has more than 25 brothels, many of which house 20 to 30 prostitutes.

Many of these facilities are little more than sheds with crude partitions that create rows of rooms barely big enough for a double bed. The prostitutes are mostly between the ages 15 and 20 and mostly from the north of Thailand, where they are procured by pimps both because of their fairer complexions and because that region's poverty pressures parents to sell daughters for as little as $200. Many parents are told the girls will work in shops or factories, but by the time they learn the truth, it is usually too late. There are few options for a girl who has worked as a $2 prostitute, even if she is free to leave, which some are not. Among the ruins of a fire a few years ago in the southern city of Phuket were the charred remains of five women in chains.

A Western anti-piracy official who has lived many years in Thailand said the violence against Vietnamese women at sea is Omerely an extension of the violence against Thai women on land.O

Both are realms of violence in which the perpetrators go almost wholly unpunished. A Thai pirate was recently released from prison after a six-year sentence for selling four Vietnamese refugees into prostitution, but such convictions have been rare.

According to the former head of the U.N. refugee field office in Songkhla, the only large-scale rescue of Vietnamese women being held as prostitutes was in 1980, after he learned that 17 were captives ofa a brothel in Songkhla.

Ted Schweitzer, who now operates the non-profit SEA Rescue Foundation, said he was told of the women by a Vietnamese woman he rescued from a brothel in a village about 150 miles north of Songkhla. He said he learned of that woman's whereabouts through a letter she had smuggled to her mother, who was living at the now-defunct Songkhla refugee camp.

Schweitzer said that on returning from the village, he put the rescued woman in the Songkhla jail for safekeeping, then called the U.N. refugee office in Bangkok for help in rescuing the others. Officials there contacted the Thai government, he said, which dispatched a group of agents from its elite Special Branch to rescue the women.

OThe first thing they did upon arriving was have a party,O Schweitzer said, OThen they decided they had to find out if the Vietnamese were there, so they went to the whorehouse and screwed the girls.O

The women were finally freed, but Schweitzer said he was so outraged that he lodged a complaint with the Thai government. The response, he said, was essentially: OWhat difference does it make? They'd been there for months.O

Meanwhile, the woman Schweitzer rescued had disappeared. He said that when he went to the jail to retrieve her, the police told him that she had been pick up by her husband. But she had no husband, Schweitzer said, and was never seen again.

Brothel operators don't welcome inquiries. When a Mercury News reporter and photographer visited a Songkhla brothel that they had been told once kept two Vietnamese women, they were met in the alleyway entrance by a young woman dressed only in towel and carrying a revolver.

When the reporter stepped closer, she fired one warning shot and then another. A burly, bare- chested man with a giant tiger tattooed across his pectorals stepped from the entranceway. The reporter turned to ask his interpreter to explain that the journalists wanted only to look around. But the interpreter was already moving fast in the opposite direction.

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Last modified: Friday June 10, 2005.