Note: Reporter Manichanh Phimphachanh of RFA’s Lao Service traveled with Lao farmer Boune to the Thai capital Bangkok and observed his encounters with police and traffickers as they searched for and rescued his daughter, Kai. Both the farmer and his daughter’s names have been altered to protect their privacy and safety as the trafficking case is prosecuted by Thailand.
Boune was a desperate man.
For six months Boune, a poor Lao rice farmer, had lived a parent’s worst nightmare. His 13-year-old daughter was missing.
In late June, Kai disappeared from the Vietnamese store in their village where she worked to help support the family.
When she didn’t come home Boune searched Phondaeng village. He checked in the stores and other places where a 13-year-old girl might hang out, but Kai wasn’t in any of them.
She wasn’t in the stores. She wasn’t with a friend. She was just gone.
He had no idea where to look, so he and his wife sat at home and waited. They waited and they hoped against hope.
While his daughter was only 13, in some ways Kai was wiser than her years. Her father was just a poor rice farmer, but she always thought about the future, he told RFA’s Lao Service.
“She knew working on a farm is hard, and that we struggled to grow enough rice to feed our family and have enough to sell to get a little money,” Boune said.
She had just finished primary school, but she was thinking about the future, he said.
“During her school break, she always worked to help support her family and buy school supplies and clothes even though she was still very young,” he said.
Then on Dec. 18, 2016 Boune got a phone call from his daughter. She told him not to worry.
She was in next-door Thailand working as a maid for a woman named Jei Took, who treated her well and paid her 7,000 baht (U.S. $200) a month. She told her parents not worry, because Jei Took, treats her well. If she can save some money she will return home to help the family, she told them.
Boune and his wife tried not to worry, but they knew something was wrong.
On Dec. 24 at 9 a.m. they got another phone call. This time from Jei Took. She didn’t sound friendly.
Jei Took told them her daughter was a thief. That she stole a necklace worth 20,000 baht (U.S. $600). She demanded 20,000 baht, and told Boune that if he didn’t pay, his daughter’s safety was at risk.
A parent’s worst nightmare had just become a horror story.
Now Boune and his wife couldn’t eat. They had trouble sleeping.
Gripped by desperation, Boune decided to mortgage his farm. He could only get 13,000 baht (U.S. $370), and if he didn’t pay it back in two years he’d lose the farm.
Boune took the money and set out for Thailand. By the time he got across the Mekong River, he was already a day late, and he’d already had to spend some of the money.
He was supposed to pay the ransom on Jan. 3, but it was Jan. 4 when he crossed the river and he was in a devastated mind.
A rescue plan
Arriving in Bangkok, Boune went to the Lao embassy and asked for help. Lao diplomats contacted the Thai police, and that’s when Boune got his first real break.
The officials from Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI) cooked up a plan to rescue the girl. A policeman disguised as a cab driver would take Boune to a rendezvous and three groups of plainclothes police would nab Jei Took.
As the taxi arrived, instead of being met by a woman they were met by a muscular man. The man tried to spirit Boune away, but the cop-turned-cab-driver was too quick. He got to the man before he could get to Boune.
After a short interrogation the man took police to a house that he said was owned by Jei Took.
The house looked like a home for the aged. Inside there were five hospital beds and one elderly woman, one Thai worker and another from Burma, and Jei Took. But not Kai.
They also a discovered a critical piece of evidence -- a long list of workers who appeared to have been sold or sent to other employers. The list included the names of many young Lao girls.
The police told RFA they believe the house was a holding place for the workers before they were sent or sold to their employers. They said Jei Took appeared to be a broker who sells workers to employers across the country.
They also believe that Jei Took was trying to get ransom money from Boune, but had no intention of returning her.
The police took three people into custody: Jei Took, Jei Took’s sister (known as Chanraem or Biew) and the muscular man.
Jei Took agreed to lead the police team to a new location, a big house in a wealthy neighborhood in Samut Sakhon near Bangkok.
Lost and then found
At the second location, Boune looked through an opening in the wall in front of the house, and there was his daughter. She saw him. They ran to each other.
Although they were each crying, they were happy as they talked over each other through the tears.
As they sat in a police car, she told her story to her father, her rescuers and RFA.
Kai said she was working in the Vietnamese store in her village when a Thai man called Kekkoi told her that she could have a good paying job in Thailand.
She agreed and packed her things to go with him on a boat to cross the Mekong River. On the Thai side, she got in the man’s car with four other Lao girls from Luang Prabang.
The car made a couple of stops to drop off the other girls, and Kai was to a restaurant in Bangkok. She worked at the Bang Na restaurant for two months for 5,500 baht (U.S. $155), which was not enough to cover even the travel expenses.
Kai said she then decided to leave the restaurant because the owner was very mean. She worked in a noodle making shop in Samouthprakarn province for four months without pay, she said.
She left and ended up working as Jei Took’s house maid. Jei Took accused her of stealing the necklace.
“She asked me to return the necklace, but I could not return it because I never had it,” she said. “She said: ‘Don’t talk back,’ but I had to talk back because I did not take it.”
Then Jei Took threatened her more directly.
“She said if I didn’t have the money to pay for it, then she would put me in jail,” Kai said. “She said: ‘Tell your father don’t try to play the tough guy, or you will be in jail for the rest of your life.’”
Waking from a nightmare
After questioning by the police, Boune’s daughter was sent to Ban Krettakarn, the government center which is a home for young human trafficking victims.
According to the Labor Rights Promotion Network (LPN) and her father, Kai is happy at the center. The Thai-based LPN was founded to address discrimination against migrant workers in Thailand and to combat human trafficking.
She will have to stay there for up to a year while the case is under investigation. While in Ban Krettakarn, she has an opportunity to learn life lessons and an array of skills of her choice. She can also take different academic courses including language.
The three individuals apprehended including Jei Took in the chase are in jail and face serious charges: collaborating in human trafficking, child labor violations, soliciting for an illegal worker and illegally housing foreigners.
Boune is staying with LPN, and he may be called to testify. He is expecting to get some financial help from the Thai government for his help in exposing a human trafficking ring.
Boune told RFA he is happy his daughter is safe at the center and plans to visit her soon. He hopes his daughter can finish secondary school so she can find a job.