Hunting those who hurt children

As Thailand was downgraded for not doing enough to stop human trafficking, one undercover policeman in the North continues to track down and lock up the child abusers

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Pol Lt Col Apichart Hattasin is battling to stop sexual predators preying on and hurting children.

street cred: Pol Lt Col Apichart Hattasin credits his success to a strong network of informants. PHOTOS: JOHN hULME

The territory of Pol Lt Col Apichart, the officer in charge of the Transnational Crime and Child and Woman Protection Unit of the Royal Thai Police Region 5, covers the eight northern provinces — Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, Nan, Phayao, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son — but he has also tracked cases to the Thai border towns of Mae Sot in the west and Hat Yai in the south.

In a small windowless office on the banks of the River Ping, Pol Lt Col Apichart scrutinises surveillance footage on a computer monitor that shows a group of men enjoying drinks at one of the city’s popular nightspots. The officer clicks at an icon and another series of photographs fill the screen, this time showing a woman leaning into the window of a car. The next photograph shows a number of mixed gender sex workers trawling for business. Glare from the computer bounces off the police officer’s face as he continues to click pixilated images of young girls and boys onto the screen. The children are victims of a wide range of paedophiles, enabled in many of the cases by local agents or handlers known as nai na.

Many are also among the victims of Thailand’s human trafficking problem, which came to the forefront of international attention on June 20 when the US Department of State released its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report. Thailand was dropped into its lowest rank, the Tier 3 category, and the report called Thailand “a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking”.

The shock waves from the report were sharply felt in Thailand. They came on the back of an investigation by The Guardian into the exploitation of migrant workers used as slave labour in the country’s fishing industry.

‘heart for justice’: Pol Lt Col Apichart Hattasin is on a mission to rid Thailand of sexual predators.

The International Labour Organisation states on its website that: “Forced labour in the private economy generates estimates that US$150 billion in illegal profits per year." The ILO states that forced labour “takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery”.

For Pol Lt Col Apichart, the issue is much closer to home. He explains that the woman on the computer screen is under surveillance as she is reputed to be a nai na who “sells” children to paedophiles.

The images Pol Lt Col Apichart is analysing add up to months of painstaking covert surveillance in the hope of building a watertight case against the woman. Pol Lt Col Apichart explains that to get a successful arrest and prosecution, one case can take from seven months to two years to collect all the evidence needed.

“We can have as many as 20 arrests a month, but to be successful we have to build our case — the ultimate aim is to get a prosecution. Paedophiles, traffickers and ‘handlers’ need to know that there is law and authority operating in this country and it is effective.”

He acknowledges that Thailand’s image and reputation need rebuilding. “Thailand is known worldwide as a destination where sex offenders can get anything, and get away with anything. I want these people to think about life in a Thai jail; it’s not going to be a three star hotel experience like jails are in Switzerland. The dark side of what paedophiles are doing is that they are going to jail — they are warned and they should be prepared.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart admits that getting a prosecution in the Thai court system is difficult, especially where it involves foreigners. He explains that bail set by a Thai court for an alleged foreign offender is inexpensive and this allows many of the accused to jump bail.

“Paedophiles should know it’s not just me alone who is fighting them, it is also the law enforcement agencies in their own country. They see us a developing country and they might think law enforcement is weak and they can get away with their crimes, they think here there are lots of children they can abuse, but be warned we are looking for them, not just the police here, but the police in their own countries.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart’s plan is to prosecute foreign paedophiles in Thailand, but if unsuccessful, he has a back-up plan that allows them to be prosecuted back in their own country.

“We also prosecute cases with many international law agencies. Wherever these paedophiles come from we have connections, we can and we will utilise the laws in their respective countries to prosecute.”

A quick scan of the shelves in Pol Lt Col Apichart’s office confirms his working connections with international law enforcement agencies is more than idle chat or international tokenism. Badges, plaques and certificates of appreciation from a wide range of law agencies commend the work of Pol Lt Col Apichart and his team. A senior Western law enforcement agent, who asked not to be named, paid tribute to Pol Lt Col Apichart’s honesty as a lawman.

“Thailand is a hub for everything. It attracts sex tourists and paedophiles that know they can easily escape into neighbouring countries. Lt Col Apichart really is the best because he does it the right way and he’s not corrupt. He’s arrested the whole spectrum — his heart is for justice.”

Among the vast collection of certificates spread around the office is Pol Lt Col Apichart’s master's degree in International Security and Terrorism from the UK's Nottingham University.

An embossed Certificate of Appreciation that bears the crests of both the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security stands out. The certificate was given to Lt Col Apichart and his team for their involvement in the “US vs Cutler child exploitation investigation”.

Robert Cutler was a university lecturer who is alleged to have taken young boys back to his home for sex and his case is now an ongoing investigation in the US.

Pol Lt Col Apichart opens more video footage files on his computer that show the arrests of a number of foreign men in hotels while in the company of boys. The men in the videos are from Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Belgium and the US. They include bankers, university lecturers and retirees.

“They might think that they can come here and commit crimes and get away with it. If they escape or jump bail here they will be targeted and hunted down by their own police. Paedophiles see our country and our neighbours as easy pickings. It is not just foreign paedophiles, but also local ones,” Pol Lt Col Apichart said while pointing to a video showing a saffron-robed monk opening a door to the police team.

Pol Lt Col Apichart acknowledges that there are weak points in the Thai police force and explains that reforms have to be built around decent wages, fairness and justice.

“There are many factors — low wages is one of them. If we are bad we will attract bad, and if we are doing good we will attract good people. Everything needs to be transparent and open. We do need institutional reform, but to be successful we have to be willing to reform ourselves. I am proud of my team and the work we do. Our project has already seen reforms within our own ranks. Paedophiles will try anything to get off, including offering bribes.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart stresses that building a solid reputation and a network of trusted contacts on the street was crucial to the success off putting paedophiles behind bars.

“We use a wide range of equipment that includes surveillance cameras, drones and undercover operatives, but our network is the most important element … the NGOs, the street kids, the community.”

MEN IN ROBES

red-handed: A Lahu man sits handcuffed in cell after his arrest for involvement in child trafficking.

A large blue board fixed to the wall in Pol Lt Col Apichart’s office features five police mug shots of saffron-robed monks that are connected by a thick line that leads to a single mug shot of a man in a white shirt. The five monks were abbots at well-known Chiang Mai temples, until Pol Lt Col Apichart’s team arrested them for sex crimes against minors following a seven-month investigation.

“It was difficult to gather evidence and to prove. It was difficult because these people are not ordinary citizens, but people who have special status in the community. There’s no punishment for rogue monks. The law on monks needs to be reformed, the law needs to criminalise the behaviour of these monks.

“Getting the bad monks in jail builds our credibility and the trust of abused children. Trust is important in our work. People who give us information must know that the information will not be leaked or backfire on them in any way.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart details the operation that resulted in the arrest of the rogue abbots.

“The kids being targeted were poor. They were from broken families and had turned to computer game shops for meaning. They need money to play. One of the monks was a pimp, he spotted these kids — he knew where to find them. He picked them up and delivered them to the other monks who used the kids for sex.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart’s investigation shows the extent of the planning that paedophiles put into snaring children for sex.

“The case against the six monks was initially hard. It was difficult to gather evidence and to prove. The most critical evidence was from the children themselves. We have good street connections. Our network told us that something bad was happening to the kids on the street. We investigated.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart pays tribute to the children involved and to the NGOs who helped his team leading up to the arrests. “We had the trust of the children. The success of the case was down to our networks that looked out for kids at risk.”

The monks are now in jail awaiting trial, but it could take up to two years to get a prosecution.

“The monks have been disrobed. They broke their vows, now they have no status. It was important that they had their status as monks removed to take away their power. This was a difficult case because they are not ordinary citizens, but people who have a very special status — it was more difficult than arresting foreigners.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart wants the arrests of the abbots to peel away the veneer of respectability and community esteem that people unquestionably bestow on men in religious robes.

“People are naive about what they give their respect to. It makes them blind. I want people to be aware, because bad people use respectful institutions to hide their real intentions. One of the monks we arrested had around 150 of his victims on his camera — they were all young boys.”

To stop paedophiles hurting children, Pol Lt Col Apichart wants monks who are aware of the abuse to take responsibility and get in touch with his unit.

“These men were not real monks, their actions are those of criminals taking advantage of the robes. Real monks support what we are doing. They know keeping quiet about the bad monks is not working. I want to clean the places that are full of dirt.”

His voice drops to a whisper as he considers the wide range of people who target and brutalise children.

“It is not just Buddhist monks, but all religions. Paedophiles use religion as a safe haven and to get access to children. My next project is to take down the ‘safe havens’ and expose these false missionaries and monks. My team will apply what we have learned — we have already busted a pastor who will go on trial in September. Years ago when I first started this work most of my cases were foreign paedophiles, now most of my cases are monks. My next project is to clean up the paedophiles, both foreign and local, hiding behind religious robes.”

EASY PICKINGS

The foreign paedophiles arrested by Pol Lt Col Apichart and his team read like a United Nations listing. Men from Switzerland, Belgium, France, the UK, Italy, Australia and the US have all come to Thailand intent on having sex with children. Pol Lt Col Apichart describes how a French national took the time to build a community profile that gave him access to children.

“He raised money to say he was running an NGO providing social services for children, but he was only interested in boys. He picked on the vulnerable and the poor. He selected undocumented Burmese [Myanmar] beggar kids who were extremely quiet because of their status. He went to their family, gave them money and said he would take the boys to his place to be taught. He worked on the kids’ feelings. He took showers with them.”

Paedophiles are highly organised individuals or groups of sexual predators, he says.

“They have their own community and networks. Paedophiles seek out poverty-stricken countries where children are vulnerable. Paedophiles have set up international networks, newsletters and websites to share photographs, videos and even child victims.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart takes time to reflect on what he has just outlined and the details he has left out. A hard edge to his voice adds meaning to his words.

“These kids were powerless, illegal [immigration status] in Thailand, not likely to come forward to the police. The Frenchman was rich, smart and confident. Luckily our street network got in touch with us. We have lots of people on the street listening for us. Our team is only 10 strong but our network is proving to be effective.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart takes time to point out that not all paedophiles fit into an-easy-to-assemble profile: “It could be anyone. We've arrested monks, priests, even a kid’s father. They could be young or old, rich or poor. We've arrested and jailed a 90-year-old Australian man for repeated abuse of children.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart issues a blunt warning to paedophiles intending to come to his patch.

brotherly love: The Big Brother school offers abuse victims a safe learning environment.

“Paedophiles coming to northern Thailand should be scared, very scared. They should be scared of Thai jails. They are warned and should prepare themselves — they should know Thai jails are not three-star hotels, they are something to fear.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart said his links to international law enforcement agencies are real and effective and he and his team will do everything in their power to make sure paedophiles end up in jail.

“We coordinate with international immigration agencies, the FBI, Interpol, Homeland Security and other relevant authorities. We have connections with Belgian, Swiss, US, Australian, British and many European law enforcement agencies.

"Wherever these paedophiles come from we have connections, we can and we will utilise the laws in their respective countries to prosecute.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart said if paedophiles are under the illusion that they can come to Thailand to commit crimes and get away with it they are making a massive mistake.

“If they do escape or jump bail here they will be targeted and hunted down by their own police.”

BIG BROTHER

During his time making arrests Pol Lt Col Apichart realised that the child victims had little or no resources to call on to help them cope with the trauma they had been subjected to. He said that it was a case involving a sexually abused homeless child that prompted him to do more.

“The kid was alone, he had no one. All these street kids come from broken homes and have no one to turn to for help. It was a case of knowing that my responsibility had to go further than just arresting paedophiles. These kids needed my help.”

Pol Lt Colonel Apichart found a kindred spirit in Boom (not her real name), a director of the HUG project, social worker and psychologist according to the Criminal Procedure Code.

Pol Lt Colonel Apichart points out that as he is an expert in putting paedophiles behind bars and Boom’s and HUG’s aim is to protect children at risk from violence, exploitation and abuse, the collaboration made for an effective team.

Both Pol Lt Col Apichart and Boom pay tribute to their teams and the volunteers who put in long hours for the children.

“All we lacked was resources and funds. We both want to break the cycle of abuse that these kids are locked in. We want the abuse to stop and we want the abusers in jail.”

Boom explains that the HUG acronym stands for hope, understanding and grace and the word hug in the northern Thai Lanna dialect means love.

HUG, part of the Big Brother Project, uses a suburban house on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Rows of big and small footwear indicate large numbers of people are inside. Inside a group of teenagers sit quiet, taking in what two high school teachers are showing them on an overhead projector. The class ends and a teenager with a tattooed face playfully shadow boxes with a burly undercover policeman.

On a low wall in the entrance of the house, Boom underlines the size of the task that the Big Brother Project has attempted to tackle.

“Eighteen months ago, many of these kids would have been high on glue, none of them could sit still. Most had been kicked out of home or school. We build trust with the kids. We aim to protect these children and offer them a safe environment. These kids do listen to the police because they are authority figures and the relationships have developed to one of trust and friendship.”

Boom and Pol Lt Col Apichart now have 16 children aged between 12 and 18 involved in the Big Brother Project.

Boom stresses that the project has nothing in common with the Orwellian overtones of its name, but everything to do with its Thai translation — Pi Yai — someone who takes care of you.

“The Big Brother Project is run between the police, the Chiang Mai Office of Social Development and Human Security and the HUG Project. Our Big Brother Project is about having someone to look up to, someone to protect you — that’s our definition of pi yai.”

Pol Lt Col Apichart chips in and adds to Boom’s words. “When we arrest the paedophile, these children are left stranded but they are in need of very special care. We didn’t know when we started how involved it was going to be. We thought we’d help find them a job or schooling, but we realised we had to go further.”

Boom explains that Big Brother provides a transition home to children who are victims of abuse.

“The best option for these children is to get them back home — if there is no abuse there. Our staff evaluates the situation and checks out the home environment. The second-best option is to try to get the kids back to school.”

Boom admits that resources and funds are low for the Big Brother Project.

“Last year we ran on a donation of around 30,000 baht. We rely on 10 volunteers and five members from Lt Col Apichart’s police team. The school that we run twice a week is run from the house of our volunteers, husband and wife Nicole and Mike. The community has helped — the kids get archery, football and guitar lessons and our volunteers donate their time. The Flight of the Gibbon was a special treat and helped to put some fun into the lives of these kids.”

Boom points out that most street children are usually afraid of the police, but that the children attending the Big Brother activities are learning to trust and to have healthy attachments.

The US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award recently recognised Boom’s work with the children.

“It was a honour to be nominated. I didn’t win, but it was still great.”

DIRTY DANCING

A member of Pol Lt Col Apichart’s undercover team is organising a late-night surveillance at one of the city’s nightspots, popular with tourists and Thais alike.

It’s close to midnight. Saturday edges towards Sunday and the good-time crowd moves to find a late-night drinking spot. Tuk-tuks slow in the hope of a late fare. Chinese and European tourists seek cover from the rain that starts to fall. Sex workers tout for business to drivers in slow moving cars that crawl along the city’s tree-lined streets.

A small soi renowned for its night bars is pumping. Strobe and fluorescent lighting coupled with loud music pulsate in unison. The crowd spills out of the bar, filling the soi. Small groups shout at each other in the hope of being heard.

Older men and women tourists clutch elaborate drinks and sift through the memory banks looking for dance moves. Young female backpackers mimic the dress of the women working the sex bars two blocks away. Fuelled by small buckets of alcohol the women gyrate to an invisible pole while pushing their tongues through a series of mock sexual acrobatics. Young children move between the crowded bars offering jasmine flower garlands for 20 baht to drinkers.

The undercover police take up position at a beer garden table to observe a group of young, short-haired Western men they suspect might be arranging to take children back to their hotel. The policeman explains the process.

“This work takes time … lots of observation work … getting photographs … talking to the kids. We believe the men select the kid they want, they then leave the bar and arrange for the child to follow them.”

The targeted men, unlike most of the crowd, take their time to work their way through their drinks. Eventually, the men leave the bar, and a young policeman in casual clothes follows.

Later, Pol Lt Col Apichart explains that foreign paedophiles can blend into tourist sites, hotels and bars without attracting attention.

“They come here because of the poverty and its closeness to Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.”

Boom warns that it is important not to stereotype paedophiles, children or the locations as abuse can happen anywhere and can be committed by a wide range of people.

“The children can come from a so-called good home, it can happen at school, at swimming pools, sport events and even in bookshops. Paedophiles shift their targets depending on a number of factors.”

Boom urges all NGOs and community-based groups to familiarise themselves with Thailand’s Anti-Human Trafficking Laws of 2008 as well as Thailand’s Child Protection Act, as all children, regardless of their status, are protected under them.

Boom relates a particular incident that shocked her into compiling a seven-point list that she posted on HUG’s Facebook page of what parents, carers and people working with children should be aware of when dealing with sex abuse.

“I wrote it after hearing about an 11-year-old who abused a five-year-old. The 11-year-old boy was being looked after by his single parent — his father.

"The boy was alone at home while his father was away most of the time working. The boy had been exposed to a lot of adult pornography.”

Boom’s mood lifts as she talks about one of Big Brother’s success stories, a young woman known as Mint (not her real name) who had been tricked by a trafficker’s promises of money into selling her body for sex. Helped by Big Brother, Mint turned her life around.

But Boom admits it was not always easy.

“At times Mint relapsed and returned to selling sex five times in three months. But relapses are part of the recovery process. Now Mint chooses to attend school. She is reunited with her family and has testified against two traffickers. She is now back in school and earning high grades.”

Trust betrayed: Pol Lt Col Apichart Hattasin with the arrested abbott of a Mae Rim temple. Right, police mug shots show five abbots of well-known Chiang Mai temples accused of child sex offences.

dark dealings: A young boy sells garlands at dusk on the streets of Chiang Mai. Many paedophiles travel to the country’s north to prey on impoverished children.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Phil Thornton
Position: Writer