Days before Kong Maharath disappeared from a Thai fishing boat without a trace, the deckhand told his family that someone was trying to kill him, RFA’s Lao Service has learned.
Just as he had many times before, the 38-year-old native of the Lao province of Khammuane shipped out on a fishing boat from the Thai port of Phetchaburi, but not long after setting sail on May 17 he reported trouble in a cell phone call to his wife Charipha Phetmany.
“He was working on the boat on May 28 when he called and told me that someone would kill him, and then he asked me to inform police and military to help him,” Charipha told RFA. “On the night of May 29, the owner told me my husband had disappeared.”
Charipha told RFA she met with a representative of the Nor Douangdy 11 Company which owns the boat on June 30, where the owner told her he would take responsibility, but she added that the owner also “asked me not to inform the police because if the police know I will have to pay them.”
While Charipha is Thai, her husband has lived legally in Thailand since 2006, and has never been in trouble, she said.
Kong’s disappearance has sparked an investigation as Thai police and military officers in Phetchaburi province are looking into the disappearance, a police official told RFA.
“Now the police and soldiers are investigating the cause of his death,” a police officer at Bah Leam district police station told RFA, but authorities declined to discuss the case. Officials with the Thai and Lao government also declined to talk about the incident.
Working on a Thai fishing boat is notoriously dangerous. Not only is ocean fishing a hazardous occupation in itself, but the Thai fleet is known for abusing workers, and slave laborers are often used to fill out boat crews.
The Thai government estimates that 80 percent of the 145,000 working in its fishing industry are migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.
According to United Nations estimates, the Thai fishing fleet consistently faces a shortage of about 50,000 mariners. The shortfall is filled primarily with migrant workers desperate for a job and people forced to work on the boats against their will.
In the Thai fleet murder is apparently a common occurrence, as the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking found that nearly 60 percent of trafficked migrants interviewed aboard Thai fishing vessels reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.
While authorities aren’t hazarding a guess as to the cause of Kong's disappearance, officials with the Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN) thinks it’s more than an accident.
The Thai-based LPN was founded to address discrimination against migrant workers in Thailand and to combat human trafficking. NPF has been active in labor issues involving the Thai fishing fleet.
“Kong’s relatives, Lao embassy officials, and a foundation representative met the boat owner on June 15, but he disavowed any responsibility saying only that Kong Maharath had disappeared from the boat,” Samak Thapthany, an LPN official, told RFA.
The actions of the boat captain are also raising questions, as the usual procedure if a man is lost is to contact authorities while the vessel is still at sea, Samak explained.
“The boat was taken to a port and then the owner informed Kong's wife afterwards, which is not right,” he said. “The usual practice, if someone disappears on the boat, is that the boat isn’t allowed in port until there is an investigation of the cause.”
Samak told RFA that the family gave the Lao government the right to sue the boat owner, and that one of Kong’s relatives told the foundation the boat’s owner offered $600 to the family as compensation for Kong’s death. When the family turned that down, the offer jumped to $8,600, Samak said.
“The family refused to accept the money,” Samak told RFA. “Kong’s sister returned to Laos to collect all the necessary papers and documents to submit to the Lao embassy for the court filing, but so far the Lao embassy official handling this case would not give us any details, stating that it might affect the case.”
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.