Opinion: Thailand’s Institutionalized Slavery

I recall watching a 1985 American film recently, "The Color Purple" which tells the life of a poor African American woman named Celie Harris. By the time she is 14, she is sexually abused repeatedly by her own father and is later forced to marry a wealthy young local widower who treats her like a slave. The film shows the problems African American women faced during the early 1900s, including poverty, racism, and sexism.

Celie Harris reminds me of the real-life story of a childhood friend of mine named Jaa, whose poverty-stricken mother in Korat, in the northeast of the country, sold her. I was growing up in Thailand when I first met Jaa. She was washing dishes at the kitchen of the home of a grade school friend named Mali.

Looking back, I now realize that Jaa was a child slave. I befriended Jaa because we were close in age. I often questioned why Jaa had to do such tedious housework when girls her age went to school early in the morning, every day.

Defying my friend's mother, who often told me not to talk to Jaa, I treated her as a friend. I would visit her in her tidy storage room with a torn mattress, which Mali's mother provided for her. I was not aware then of the issue of child slavery because I was a child myself.

In Almost Every Household, a Slave

In Thailand, however, almost every well-to-do household has one or more child servants who are little more than slaves. Thai society calls girls like Jaa Khun Chaai or servant, a term, it seems to me now, was nothing more than a child slave.

I grew up in a royalist family and all my friends are royalists, or were. I have often wondered what became of Jaa. She lost her childhood through the injustice of a despicable social and political system that needs to change. She never went to school. She never learned to read Thai or enjoy playing with friends her age in a schoolyard. Her childhood was lost and probably her youth as well. She had to constantly follow orders from her Thai master.

Jaa would get up no later than 5 am to prepare breakfast for family members. She would work all day at household chores from dawn to dusk without rest. I noticed several times that Mali's mother scolded her for not doing the assigned work fast enough. Inside me, I cursed at the mother often but I couldn't do anything to help.

Child slaves are ubiquitous in Thailand, from ordinary families like Mali's to family-run shops to light industries such as food products to small item manufacturing.

If you walk along a soi, a small street off the main road, every shop along both sides of the street possesses child slaves. Despite laws prohibiting child labor, the laws largely remain unenforced.

No Trouble from the Cops

I have lived for the past several decades in the UK. During my last visit to Thailand before I was charged with lese majeste for allegedly insulting the royal family, I talked with a shop owner who makes desserts for local hotel restaurants if he was afraid of being arrested for using child labor. His answer was an emphatic no. Thai cops, he said, are easily bribed.

The biggest slave industry of all is the sexual exploitation of women, mainly from Isaan, the impoverished north and northeast of the country. Poor parents often are contacted by a Nah Ma, a middleman/recruiter supposedly hiring daughters to work in Bangkok. The Nah Ma doesn’t tell the truth that in fact the daughters, especially cute ones, are sold into prostitution or massage parlors. The not-so-cute ones are sold to shops or households for manual labor.

I have friends who went to college with me in Bangkok who couldn't get a decent job and ended up in the sex industry so they could help their parents make ends meet. They told me that even if they found work in an office, the potential employers would offer wages so low that it wasn’t even enough to pay for apartment rent and utilities. I know now why Thai women are forced to earn a living in the sex industry because the barbaric social and political system gives them no choice.

The nightly propaganda campaign on television of the royal family, which now consists of a generation of the king's grandchildren being catered to by ladies-in-waiting, guards and royal servants, is a travesty. The servants are no different from Jaa, who had to struggle to stay alive and escape being scolded or beaten by my friend's mother.

Shrimp Industry Slavery

Recent news about human trafficking of migrant workers in the Thai shrimp industry was only a tip in the iceberg. A number of large-scale seafood processors all share their interest to the Crown Property Bureau, an investment arm of the royal family. Their collaborators and enablers are military and police officials who serve as a protectors.

When the U.S. State Department released its 2014 report on human rights abuse, it downgraded Thailand to the lowest possible ranking, after the country reached its limit of waivers and failed to show significant improvement.

Now Thailand shares the State Department’s Tier 3 category with 22 other countries, putting it on par with the likes of North Korea, Syria and the Central African Republic.

Ten years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra, a democratically elected prime minister, was robbed of his position by the royalists despite his popularity among the poor, the majority of the population from the North and Northeast of Thailand. The royals' fear that Thaksin was too popular resulted in a coup that ended his reign. Since then he has not been able to return home and has remained on the run from charges of corruption.

Nonetheless, Thaksin's political party, run by surrogates, won election only to have the prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, removed by the royal court. Then a caretaker government headed by Samak Sundaravej was also removed on the pretext that he had received pay while participating in a cooking show. When Thaksin’s Red Shirt followers rallied violently in 2010, more than 90 people died. The last election was held in 2012 and again Thaksin's party won a landslide victory. Thaksin's sister Yingluck became the PM.

That ultimately led to months of disturbances that became a pretext for ousting her. Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, a staunch supporter of the royal family, took over on May 22, 2014 in a coup d’etat.

Sanctions and boycotts on Thai exports must continue unless their despicable and barbaric lese majesty law is repealed so that people can openly discuss issues relating to the monarchy without fearing reprisal. With such a barbaric law protecting the king and his empire, they can do anything they want to ruin the country and its people. Thai slaves, the exploitation of women, children and tuna boat workers, will continue to flourish.

The UK-based Chatwadee Rose Amornpat has become one of Thai King Bhumibol’s fiercest critics.